A federal appeals court has vacated a ruling that would have helped to clear the way for a project to build a road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska. The court said it would rehear the case, which involves a land swap that was approved by the Trump administration.
The decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reopen the case, announced in a brief order Thursday, is at least a temporary victory for conservation groups who oppose the project. They and others, including former President Jimmy Carter, also fear that allowing such a land swap would effectively gut a landmark decades-old law that protects tens of millions of acres of public lands across Alaska.
The decision vacated a ruling made in March by a panel of three of the court’s judges. The full court said it would hear arguments in the case in December.
“We welcome the court’s ruling to grant a rehearing, making way for safer options to protect the environment,” Peter Winsor, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. The group was one of nine that had petitioned the court to rehear the case.
In a rare legal action by a former president, Mr. Carter had filed a brief supporting the conservation groups. He described the earlier decision as “dangerous” and said it misinterpreted the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, known as Anilca, which he had championed and was enacted in 1980, near the end of his presidency.
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The law protected more than 100 million acres of land in the state, including nearly 60 million designated as wilderness. Mr. Carter, responding to questions from The New York Times after his brief was field, said Anilca “may be the most significant domestic achievement of my political life.”
Residents of King Cove, an isolated community near the Aleutian Islands, and state political leaders had long sought to build the 40-mile mostly gravel road, which would connect King Cove with a large all-weather airport in another community. But 11 miles of the road would run through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, 300,000 acres that include extensive wetlands that are a prime stopover for geese and other migrating birds.
King Cove residents and others say the road is needed so that villagers can get adequate urgent medical care in Anchorage, 600 miles to the east. Opponents say the project is more about transporting fish from King Cove’s major business, a salmon processor.
In 2019, David Bernhardt, then the Interior Secretary in the Trump administration, approved an agreement that would have exchanged land owned by a local Native village corporation for a corridor of land within the refuge.
A Federal District Court rejected the deal in 2020. It was this decision that was reversed in March by the three-judge panel. The vote was 2 to 1, with two Trump-appointed judges in favor. The majority opinion found that Mr. Bernhardt had acted appropriately in approving the land swap after weighing the economic and social benefits of the road to King Cove residents against any environmental harm it might cause.
The conservation groups and Mr. Carter argued that Anilca did not give the interior secretary discretion to consider economic and social value. By allowing the land swap, the three-judge panel would effectively let future interior secretaries redraw the boundaries of public lands in Alaska at will, the groups said.
The Biden administration had supported the land swap, arguing that the conservation groups’ interpretation of Anilca would sharply restrict the Interior Department’s ability to conduct land swaps.
An Interior Department spokeswoman said Friday that the department was reviewing the case.