Flight of the Swan

Many of us don’t realize that there are Arctic birds in South Carolina.  Most spectacular of all is the Tundra Swan, our state’s largest migratory waterfowl, with a wingspan of nearly six feet. 

Hundreds of Tundra Swans winter here, mostly in the ACE Basin.  And every year they teach their offspring the route back and forth between the Arctic and South Carolina. 

Now these swans, along with other Arctic migrants like ducks and sparrows and sandpipers, need help from bird-lovers across South Carolina.  

Their Refuge

Tundra Swans and other migrants come to us from the northern part of Alaska, including the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The Arctic Refuge is an American icon:  intact, untouched, and truly spectacular

The coastal plain is considered the biological heart of the Refuge.  There, the tundra rolls away from the steep, snowy Brooks Range, finally tumbling into the Beaufort Sea.  In these lowlands, nestled among grasses and wildflowers, Tundra Swans breed through the summer.  Breeding around them are about 70 other bird species and Arctic mammals large and small. 

It’s astonishing that such a vast, untouched ecosystem still exists on our crowded Earth.  And though most of the Arctic Refuge is protected, its 1.5-million-acre coastal plain is not.  That’s because underneath the tundra lies a tempting cache of oil and natural gas whose fate Congress has been debating for nearly 40 years. 

Never mind that the area that needs protection is just five percent of Alaska’s vast Arctic coastal plan.  Or that tens of millions of acres nearby are already open to drilling.  Never mind that drilling in the Refuge would fragment and degrade habitat critical to caribou, wolves, grizzlies, and birds that winter throughout the Lower 48.  Congress has still not protected this area.

Call it Wilderness

With the current administration focused on fossil fuels, there's now a bold new effort to develop the coastal plain.  On April 4, Audubon and its allies countered with companion bills in the U.S. House (H.R. 1889) and Senate (S.820) that would give this special place a federal “wilderness designation,” leaving it wild and free.

It’s a critical time, then, for bird-lovers in South Carolina to speak up.  First, to protect the birds that travel between the Arctic and South Carolina.  And second, to help shift our nation away from fossil fuels. 

Why weigh in on the larger issue of fossil fuels?  Because given South Carolina’s nearly 3,000 miles of coastline, both our economy and our natural and cultural resources are especially vulnerable to climate change.  Rising tides threaten coastal tourism revenue of $8 billion per year, billions of dollars’ worth of coastal real estate, and the primary historic sites that define our state’s identity. 

Rising tides also threaten South Carolina’s iconic wildlife.  By 2050, Bald Eagles, Brown Pelicans, and other coastal birds will lose more than half their habitat to climate change.

In short, South Carolina has no reason to support any action, including drilling in the Arctic Refuge, that would prolong our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.   

“Our” Arctic

The coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is unique on Earth.  In a region that’s mostly icy peaks and glittering glaciers, the coastal plain is warm, moist, and buggy through the summer.  Dotted with freshwater wetlands, dense with nesting and breeding wildlife, dissolving into salt marsh and estuaries as it stretches toward the sea  the coastal plain bears a resemblance to the South Carolina lowcountry.   

So let’s send the coastal plain some South Carolina love!  Ask our federal officials to designate it a wilderness, so that Tundra Swans will continue to sweep into our state year after year, from the safety of the Arctic Refuge.