Former President Carter is taking the rare step of weighing in on judicial proceedings, saying that an appeals court is misinterpreting a conservation law he signed.
On Monday, Carter filed a briefing chastising a ruling that upheld a Trump-era decision to build a road through a national wildlife refuge in order to enable medical evacuations nearby.
Carter, in an amicus brief, argued that the ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals “misinterpreted” the law in question, called the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).
“The understanding adopted by the panel majority here is not only deeply mistaken, it is also dangerous,” Carter wrote.
He wrote that the panel’s findings could be applied to other decisions in the future, circumventing what he described as the law’s intention.
“The secretarial powers the decision recognized would apply equally to National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, as well as Wilderness Areas and other conservation lands, and to all manner of development and extractive activities, not just road building,” he wrote. “Congress’s landmark action—the culmination of years of study and struggle—to designate for permanent preservation specific unrivaled national interest lands would be denied.”
In its ruling, the panel of judges argued that in the law, Congress enabled then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to strike an “appropriate balance” between environmental interests and economic and social needs.
But Carter wrote that the law’s mention of “adequate” social and economic needs describes what the legislation had achieved and did not allow for future decisions that sacrificed conservation in the interest of balance.
“When Congress characterized ANILCA as striking an ‘adequate’ balance between conservation and utilization … it was not, as the panel majority’s decision assumed, licensing future Interior and Agriculture Secretaries to trade away lands with irreplaceable ecological and subsistence values for economic benefits,” the former President wrote.
“The statute was instead describing the end-state that Congress’s enactments had achieved,” he added.
The road in question would run through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as part of a land swap between the Interior Department and an Alaska Native corporation called King Cove Corp.
The corporation has said the road would provide access to an airport and emergency flights, while environmentalists have raised concerns about both the habitats of species in the refuge and the precedent that the land swap would set.