Bruce Woods (907) 786-3695
Rob Jess (907) 456-0407
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has decided that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will identify the “no action alternative,” no land exchange, as the preferred alternative. The selection of one of the alternatives is a required component of the EIS process. While selection of a preferred alternative is not the same as a final decision, it does indicate the direction that the Agency is likely heading. The Service anticipates release of the Final EIS in late 2009, followed by a Record of Decision in early 2010.
The proposed land exchange involved 110,000 acres of Refuge lands that may hold developable oil and gas reserves, and oil and gas rights to an adjacent 97,000 acres of Refuge lands. Under the proposed action, the Refuge would have received a minimum of 150,000 acres of Doyon lands within Refuge boundaries, and Doyon would have reallocated 56,500 acres of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act land entitlements within the Refuge to lands outside the Refuge.
The Service released a Draft EIS for public review in January 2008, and received over 100,000 comments. The vast majority of comments, including those from several area tribal governments, opposed the proposed exchange. “We were very pleased by the level of public participation,” said Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge Manager Robb Jess. “The EIS process worked, though it may have led us in a different direction than we had originally anticipated. Going into this effort, we did not anticipate the level of opposition that we heard from some of the most affected communities within the Yukon Flats.”
Many comments in opposition to the proposed land exchange focused on conservation concerns. Some felt that, geographically, the effect of the exchange would result in habitat fragmentation, as the refuge would be split into two parcels, and could degrade the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of the refuge. Comments also cited access and impacts to refuge resources as significant issues. There were concerns, as well, that oil and gas development could reduce the quantity and quality of subsistence resources, which would negatively impact traditional lifestyles. Some segments of the public also expressed a fundamental opposition to any divestiture of Native lands. Critics also felt that the exchange, which could potentially facilitate oil and gas development in the Yukon Flats basin, was particularly problematic considering future climate change impacts on Refuge lands.
In addition, reinterpretation of historic seismic and geologic data by the U.S. Geological Survey, combined with recently gathered geophysical information, suggests that oil and gas resources may not be located as originally believed, and thus has cast some doubts on the benefits of the exchange to all involved.
“I commend all of the groups and individuals who’ve contributed to this process to date,” said the Service’s Alaska Regional Director Geoffrey L. Haskett, “including Service and Doyon representatives and the many stakeholders who participated in the public comment process. The proposed land exchange was both complex and multifaceted, and it is only right that the process leading to our final decision has been and will be rigorous.”
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.