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Ninth inning for the Alaska bill

After four years of arduous debate, Congress is on the verge of enacting an Alaska lands bill that promises lasting protection for much of North America's last unspoiled wilderness areas. It would be a pity if environmentalists and proponents of energy development were to fail now to reach agreement on the remaining issues that divide them.

The compromise legislation passed by the Senate this week does not provide as much environmental protection as does the stronger House measure; nor are its provisions as tough as the temporary existing safeguards President Carter established by executive order. But even the staunchest conservation advocates see the 104-million acre set-aside in the Senate bill as a significant step toward preserving Alaska's virgin forest, unpolluted rivers, and wildlife for future generations of Americans. It should also be kept in mind that both versions leave open for exploration more than 90 percent of the land areas thought to be most favorable for oil and gas exploration -- and all of Alaska's offshore acreage.

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Still, there are questionable elements in the Senate compromise that ought to be addresses. Unlike the House bill, for instance, it opens up more than 100, 000 acres of federal land in souteast Alaska to mining; over the objections of native residents, it allows logging in the Admiralty islands; it sets the dubious precedent of having Congress set the cut levels for a national forest.

Senator Jackson And others have warned that any fiddling with the Senate compromise by the House would almost certainly lead to another Senate filibuster and the likely demise of the lands bill. Such threats cannot be ignored. Failure to get a bill through Congress this year, after so much debate and two previous failures, will no doubt discourage the lawmakers from taking up another bill any time soon. Environmentalists will have to carefully gauge their efforts, but they should not let that deter them from trying to hammer out the best possible protection for Alaska's irreplaceable natural resources before creeping civilization alters them forever.

As Rep. Morris Udall aptly put it, "We've worked too long and too hard. . . for the spirit of tough but reasonable compromise to desert us now. There's no reason not to play the ninth inning just because the first eight have been so hard."

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