This past weekend we recognized International Migratory Bird Day, a chance to celebrate some of our most amazing and iconic birds, and a reminder of the need to preserve the habitat that is critical to their survival.

The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Reserve) in northwest Alaska is the largest single unit of public land in the nation, spanning nearly 23 million acres across the western North Slope of Alaska. It includes millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands with important habitat for migratory birds, brown bears, caribou, threatened polar bears, walrus and more. Currently five areas of exceptional wildlife value are set aside for protection within the Reserve: the Teshekpuk Lake, Colville River, Peard Bay, Kasegaluk Lagoon and the Utukok River Uplands Special Areas. Each year, birds from across the country travel to these Special Areas to nest and raise their young.

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It is hard to overstate the importance of the Reserve to America’s birds. Teshekpuk Lake hosts the highest density of shorebirds in the circumpolar Arctic. Thirty-one bird species breed in this Special Area, and 50,000 geese molt there in late summer. As many as half of the world’s Black Brant descend on Kasegaluk Lagoon before beginning their journey to winter as far south as Mexico; and the Utukok River Uplands provide world-class nesting habitat for raptors such as Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons and Rough-legged Hawks.

Unfortunately, the Reserve – and in fact many American landscapes – is increasingly under threat from a Congress that is focused on selling off and renting out our public lands to the highest bidder.  According to the Center for American Progress, the new Senate has cast nearly half of its roll call votes on energy and anti-environment efforts like supporting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, blocking efforts to reduce carbon pollution, selling off America’s public lands and expediting drilling both onshore and off.

The worst may be yet to come for the Reserve. In the previous Congress, there were several efforts to undermine the balanced and broadly supported management approach for the Reserve that set aside the current Special Areas. “Drill everywhere” proponents were ready and willing to sacrifice world-class habitat in the Reserve, places which have historically been recognized by Congress and protected for decades by both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations alike.

Given Congress’ record so far this year, we can only presume that America will see more of the same efforts to prioritize fossil fuel extraction over other uses of our public lands and oceans, including hunting, fishing and protection of valuable wildlife habitat. The current Reserve management plan provides access to 75 percent of the economically recoverable oil in the Reserve. Let’s celebrate International Migratory Bird Day by vowing to protect the Reserve’s globally important Special Areas for the birds and wildlife that depend on them. 

Warnock is the executive director of Audubon Alaska.