Stan Senner is a biologist and executive director of Audubon Alaska -- the National Audubon Society's Alaska State Office. He is a leader in the fight to protect Teshekpuk Lake and other special places in the western Arctic and frequently works with, and is often represented by, Earthjustice.
At the end of September 2006, the US District Court for Alaska blocked an Interior Department plan to lease more than 400,000 acres of previously protected land in the western Arctic surrounding Teshekpuk Lake to oil developers. The court found the government's analysis of the environmental impacts of the proposed leases violated the law.
The name Teshekpuk Lake (pronounced Te SHECK puk) doesn't easily roll off one's lips, and -- let's be honest -- most people, even highly motivated outdoors people, will never see Teshekpuk Lake. But it is indeed a place to remember, care about, and fight to protect.
Teshekpuk Lake is the largest lake on Alaska's North Slope and second largest in Alaska. Its location is remote, situated between Barrow, the farthest north city in North America, and the Colville River, just west of the sprawling Prudhoe Bay oilfields. There are no spectacular mountains nearby, no whitewater rivers to raft the sea, and no rolling foothills for fine hiking. In fact, access is difficult and expensive, and the landscape is flat, wet and entirely treeless.
Yet there is something about Teshekpuk Lake. For the Inupiat residents of the North Slope, it is part of their native land, and they speak with reverence about visits to hunting camps that have been in their families for generations. From these camps they hunt caribou and waterfowl and catch whitefish to sustain their families and culture.
For others, Teshekpuk Lake is a still-wild slice of the Arctic, and there is a beauty to this austere place where earth, sky and water blend into one stunning and unforgettable environment. This still-wild quality is an increasingly scarce resource in America's Arctic, as both federal and state governments press to lease and develop every acre of America's Arctic that has any oil and gas potential.
This relentless pursuit of energy resources leaves no room for wilderness, nor for Native subsistence hunting, but it also jeopardizes the one thing that tangibly links the lake to people across North America and indeed much of the world -- migratory birds.
The wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake are among the most important in the circumpolar Arctic, and the area is incredibly rich in birdlife. Millions of birds gather there to nest and rear their young, rest and feed during migration, or to molt. Among these millions are American Golden-Plovers that spend the winter in Argentina, Dunlins in Japan, Tundra Swans in North Carolina, Lapland Longspurs in Oklahoma, and Northern Pintails in California.
When waterfowl molt their primary wing feathers, they are flightless and tend to gather at places that are free of predators and disturbance, where they can rest and feed in safety. It is no accident that the Teshekpuk Lake wetlands attract tens of thousands of molting geese, including Brant, a marine goose, from three nations (U.S., Canada and Russia). As many as 30 percent of all Brant in the Pacific Flyway gather there to molt, and then travel down the West Coast to Baja, Mexico, where they spend the winter. Greater White-fronted Geese also gather to molt and travel down the Central and Mississippi flyways through the Midwest to the gulf coast.
Whether you a birdwatcher, waterfowl hunter, or someone who simply appreciates the sound of "goose music" high overhead on an autumn night, the birds that summer at Teshekpuk Lake are a direct link between you and this remote area. Learn how to pronounce its name, because it's going to need your help if we are to secure its future as a wild Arctic wetland.