The Hidden Trade-off

The Omnibus Public Lands Bill (HR 146) put the importance of wilderness conservation to the forefront of political chatter. Despite the positive provisions, the inclusion of Izembek land transfer proves that no victory comes without a price.

The Backpacker office has been buzzing since the passing of HR 146, the Omnibus Public Lands Bill. Make no mistake – there’s a lot to be excited about. After years of administrative mishandling of America’s natural resources and wildlife, we’re finally focused on creating protected public space within our country. This bill had been shot down in early March, frustrating the localities who’ve pushed for up to a decade to have land designated as wilderness. With a little tweaking, the bill pushed its way through two divided houses onto the desk of our 44th President. Signed, sealed, delivered.

But, I wouldn’t be my lovable, misanthropic self if I didn’t point out the one glaring negative in this legislation – the trading of land in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge near Cold Bay, Alaska. This unique and unforgiving 315,000-acre preserve shelters an array of wildlife, including five species of salmon, wolverine, caribou, harbor seals, otters, and humpback whales. The 150-square-mile Izembek Lagoon, a brackish, shallow pool teeming with eelgrass, provides a seasonal base for numerous migrating waterfowl, including the entire world’s population of the Pacific black brant. Only accessible by sea or air, the refuge remains a remote and pristine, albeit fragile, eco-system.

Any bill dealing with Alaska would not be complete without an expensive civil engineering project. The phrase “Road to Nowhere” popped up numerous times during the recent Presidential campaign, although the phrase could have referenced a number of projects (The Gravina Island bridge? How about the Don Young Way?). The latest project proposal involves building a road between King’s Cove (pop. 750) and Cold Bay (pop. 90). The refuge will receive an additional 61,000 acres in exchange for the 206 acres necessary to build the road. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has the final word on whether to proceed with this exchange; considering Salazar’s past, he could go either way.

The possibility of this road remains codified in law. Overall, conservationists (and backpackers!) won out on this one, with the pros outweighing the cons. But sleep in the backcountry with one eye open – there’s always a price for change.

-- Adrienne Saia Isaac

Defenders of Wildlife press release

AK population statistics