Conservation groups are squaring off against energy developers in what promises to be the all-but-climactic battle over the future of Alaska's federally owned wildlands.
The stakes, as both sides see them, are as big as all outdoors -- between 102 million and 127 million acres of parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness preserves, configured in various ways. One side calls the Alaska lands issue "the conservation decision of the century." The other side worries about an "energy lockup" of the oil-and mineral-rich wilderness. And in between are Alaskans who have been wrestling with different aspects of this issue since statehood was granted 20 years ago.
It is simplistic to look at the Alaska lands issue as oil vs. caribou, says Gov. Jay Hammond (R). Not only does the state contain abundant wildlife and scenic jewels atop an energy storehouse, but it also is struggling to cope with isolation, a burgeoning population, and other problems.
These prompt many Alaskans to lean toward the development side. But the issue, says the governor, has still polarized the state. He contends that both conservation and energy development can be attained.
Beginning July 21, the Senate will try to strike this balance.
On admission to the union in 1960, the state was allowed to select 104 million acres for its own use. In 1971, following passage of the Native Claims Settlement Act, 44 million acres were allocated to native Alaskans. Then the focus shifted to a decision on where the federal lands would be. Since 1977, the House of Representatives, to the delight of conservationists, has twice passed bills that would set aside about 100 million acres as national parks, wildlife refuges, and wild and scenic rivers.The Senate has moved more slowly, primarily because of the powerful position of Ted Stevens (R), who not only is minority whip but also is the senior senator from Alaska.
Late last year, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee produced a bill for full Senate consideration. Conservationists, under the umbrella of the Alaska Coalition, immediately attacked the bill as containing too little land closed to oil and mineral exploitation. After a series of scheduling maneuvers, the bill was set for July 21 consideration.
In an effort to goad Congress into settling the Alaskan lands issue, Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus in February used his authority to order 40 million acres of federal wilderness to be protected as wildlife and natural resource areas for the next 20 years -- unless Congress produces a comprehensive settlement.
A group of conservation-minded senators, led by Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and William Roth (R) of Delaware, meanwhile, has offered a substitute bill and also a series of comprehensive amendments to the Energy Committee bill placing more land under federal protection. Debate will center on these options. A sampling of congressional sentiment gives little hint as to which side will prevail.
"Look for a lot of compromises," says one congressional source.
The main points of contention include:
* Whether to provide full or limited protection to an area of southeastern Alaska that is rich in wildlife but also in minerals and timber. This area includes Admiralty Island, the Misty Fjords, and West Chichagof-Yakobi.
* How to protect the William O. Douglas arctic range, habitat of North America's largest caribou herd but also thought to be a valuable oil and gas area.
* How to arrange and manage dozens of new national parks, refuges, forests, and wilderness areas throughout the state. Should hunting, oil and mineral exploration, and lumber operations be permitted on these?
Governor Hammond favors the Senate Energy Committee bill as it stands. He points out that even it would more than double federal conservation systems, designate several parks and wildlife refuges larger than many states, and protect important scenic and wildlife resources.
But a well-heeled, new conservation group, Americans for Alaska, contends that the Tsongas-Roth approach would protect America's last wild areas and open 95 percent of Alaskan lands with oil potential.
Either way, the Alaskan status quo probably will change before Congress adjourns in October.