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A Very Busy Earth Month Yields Big Wins for Birds

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Earth Month 2024 brought big conservation wins at the White House and Congress — and new campaigns to protect the lands and waters that are critical to our communities, our wildlife, and our future. This isn’t just good policy — it honors the demands of more than 80 percent of voters who say that conserving America’s lands and waters must be a national priority.

The new efforts come at a critical moment. North America’s bird population has declined by 3 billion birds since 1970, a loss of more than one in four birds. Whether the threats come from habitat loss or a changing climate, what depletes bird populations threatens all of us. 

Audubon and its many allies have been mobilizing millions of Americans to move these conservation efforts forward, to support local and Indigenous communities across the country, and the birds and wildlife that are critical to our future. Here’s a quick rundown of an Earth Month filled with remarkable victories:

Balancing Conservation and Development:  Americans rely on public lands — which cover 640 million acres spanning every state — to deliver food, energy, clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and unsurpassable natural wonders and recreation opportunities. These landscapes – protected as national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, and other federally designated areas – are important ecologically, culturally, and economically. 

Managing Public Lands

The management of our nation’s public lands has for too long tilted towards development, extraction, and short-term resource exploitation. 86 percent of the 245 million acres of public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lack durable conservation protection against drilling, mining, or other extractive development.

A new rule from the Biden Administration will bring balance to how public lands are managed by putting habitat conservation on a more equal footing with energy development — and centering informed management decisions on science, data and Indigenous knowledge – to ensure these lands are sustainably managed for decades to come.  Balanced management will help restore tainted lands and waters and boost the health of 300 birds and other wildlife species.

“Protecting cherished landscapes is critical to giving our children and grandchildren their best chance for a healthy life,” notes Jon Hayes, executive director of Audubon Southwest. 

Reining in Oil and Gas Drilling on Public Lands

Under half-century old rules, oil and gas developers frequently seek drilling leases on public lands near wildlife habitat and cultural resources, which can lead to the pollution of pristine water and air, the destruction of fragile ecosystems, and the razing of recreational areas that generate job and economic development. “When BLM oil and gas leasing policy was last updated, the Bee Gees were on the radio and a gallon of gas cost an average of 59 cents,” says Christopher Simmons, senior manager of public lands policy for the National Audubon Society.

The Biden Administration is restoring balance to fossil fuel development on federal lands, putting critical wildlife habitat, cultural resources, and recreation on a level footing with oil and gas development. In addition to moving oil and gas development further from wildlife habitat and cultural resources, minimum bids and fees would be brought in line with what many states require, and speculative leases on lands with little development potential would be curbed.

Protecting Alaska

Alaska is home to 223 million acres of pristine public lands that dozens of treasured bird species like Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons call home — along with numerous other fish species, and endangered animals like caribou, moose, wolf, and brown bear. Federally-designated “Special Areas” protect wildlife and Indigenous communities on some of the Arctic’s most stunning lands from oil drilling risks — the Colville River, the Kasegaluk Lagoon, Peard Bay, Teshekpuk Lake, and the Utukok Uplands.

The good news is that a new rule from the Department of the Interior will strengthen protections for 13 million acres of Special Areas in the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska region. “As the Arctic rapidly warms, these new regulations will ensure that critical bird habitats will be resilient in the face of climate change,” said Marshall Johnson, chief conservation officer at the National Audubon Society.

The administration also put a stop to efforts to build the “Ambler Road” industrial corridor to reach open-pit copper mines that would cut through Tribal and intact landscapes that are home to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, the Kobuk and Koyukuk river fisheries, and nesting habitat for birds that migrate to distant places like Peru and Colombia. 

Supporting Migratory Birds

Hundreds of bird species that grace our neighborhoods every spring and summer depend on safe migratory paths and nesting grounds thousands of miles away – and these migratory species have seen the largest declines among bird populations.

These birds help drive consumer spending by more than 96 million birdwatchers that generate nearly $100 billion in economic output.  

The good news is that legislation supporting these frequent fliers — the Migratory Birds of the Americas Conservation Enhancements Act  — was just passed by Congress and signed by the president. This small but mighty program has provided funding and partnerships for conserving more than 350 species of birds.  “This legislation recognizes that conservation knows no boundaries,” said Elizabeth Gray, CEO of the National Audubon Society. Now it’s time to fully fund it.

Protecting Coastal Communities

Our coastal communities are too often ravaged by floods and storm surges, endangering vulnerable bird habitat and wetlands.  

For more than 40 years the Coastal Barrier Resources Act has buffered people and birds–and saved taxpayers billions of dollars–by protecting undeveloped beaches, wetlands and other coastal areas. 

In April the Senate passed legislation to strengthen the Act and extend its protections for communities and vulnerable bird populations further along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  “This is a great step for exposed coastal communities, vulnerable bird habitat, and endangered wetlands that need more protection from coastal storms and flooding,” said Portia Mastin, coastal conservation policy manager at National Audubon Society.

Preserving Desert Treasures

Southeast California’s incomparable deserts are home to deeply sacred landscapes and sites cherished by local Iviatim, Nüwü, Pipa Aha Macav, Kwatsáan and Maara’yam Indigenous peoples–and a refuge for fragile ecosystems.

New legislation was introduced to designate a new Chuckwalla National Monument  across 620,000 acres of wildlife habitat east of Joshua Tree National Park, and expand Joshua Tree by nearly 18,000 acres.  

“This historic designation would enhance wildlife corridors by offering threatened wildlife areas to thrive and a buffer from a warming climate,” said Frank Ruiz, director of Audubon California’s Deserts and Salton Sea Programs. Ruiz was joined at the Capitol last month by members of Congress, Tribal leaders, and community organizations to present more than 136,000 signatures calling for the Chuckwalla designation.

Bringing Clean Air and Safe, Plentiful Water to Our Communities

Our birds, wildlife, communities, and families need a clean, thriving environment to stay healthy and build economic prosperity. April brought two important new steps: 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released new climate pollution standards that cut emissions from coal and new natural gas-fired power plants, which are one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gasses and one of the largest sources of harmful air pollution. “The EPA’s bold action is a common-sense approach to embracing the future of clean energy,” said Sarah Rose, vice president of climate at the National Audubon Society.

Audubon joined the White House, states, Tribes, municipalities, and other NGOs for the America the Beautiful Freshwater Challenge — a new conservation and restoration partnership to reconnect 8 million acres of wetlands and 100,000 miles of rivers and streams, deliver clean and safe drinking water, and enhance climate resilience, among other goals.

“Healthy freshwater ecosystems are critical for people and birds throughout the hemisphere,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, vice president for water conservation. “Audubon is committed to protecting these areas as critical habitat for birds but also as solutions to address the threats of climate change—like drought, flooding, and severe storm impacts.”

Protecting communities and ecosystems

The Biden Administration finalized a rule that restored and strengthened the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) while also requiring that climate change and environmental justice impacts are assessed in federal agency decision-making.

“This new rule is a significant win in protecting communities from environmental harm, and ecosystems that birds and other wildlife depend on for their survival,” said Sam Wojcicki, senior director of climate policy at the National Audubon Society.

Earth Month 2024 delivered real progress. It also laid the groundwork to start “bending the bird curve” to reverse the decline of birds across the Americas.  

These victories mark important policy steps towards our strategic goals — reflecting the priorities of tens of thousands of Audubon members and supporters, and of millions of birders across the United States. Policymakers who deliver these victories will have a flock of supporters making the long journey with them.

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