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Antarctica's prospects clouded by treaty's impending end

Antarctica: The Last Continent PBS, tomorrow, 9-10:50 p.m., check local listings. Producer: Michael Tobias. Narrator: Robert Jiminez. Produced for PBS by KQED, San Francisco. Antarctica may prove to be an early-warning system for the global environment. That is the implication of this haunting film about one of the world's last comparatively unspoiled areas. Antarctica is a region that has been protected since 1959 from despoliation by an international treaty due to expire in 1991.

Although the film salutes the glories of nature in the form of penguins, seals, birds, and ice formations, it also warns of the grossness of encroaching invaders - dogs, and man in the form of developers, mineral hunters, tourists, even scientists.

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``The Last Continent'' traces the discovery of Antarctica and the multinational claims to ownership.

It visits the Argentine camp (Base Esperanza) and the American camp (Palmer Base).

It chats with State Department officials, marine biologists, meteorologists, travel agents, tourists, and environmental scientists.

It calls on penguins in their rookeries, and reminds us that it is believed that adult penguins mate for life.

It examines the future possibilities of harvesting the shrimplike krill, which might be a potential solution to world hunger problems.

It points out that some 60,000 tourists have already visited Antarctica and that now Argentina is offering a tourist cruise to the area for about $12,000 per couple. Argentina is also planning a 30-room hotel at its major base camp.

While the film waxes rhapsodic about idyllic Antarctica, it doesn't hesitate to pinpoint the trouble spots:

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There is a ``hole'' in the ozone layer above Antarctica that could spill deadly ultraviolet rays earthward. Are there similar ``holes'' developing over the rest of the world?

Will there be a stampede to mine Antarctica's minerals and offshore oil when these elements are depleted in the rest of the world?

How can scientists and tourists be prevented from further polluting the environment with garbage?

Husky dogs and inquisitive tourists are already invading penguin rookeries and chasing the birds away. How can that be stopped?

With seven countries (Argentina, Chile, Britain, New Zealand among them, but not the United States) claiming sovereignty, will there eventually be global conflict over ``ownership'' of Antarctica?

It is apparent that there must be some comprehensive plan to safeguard this ``last continent.'' According to the film, despite the growing problems the region is still essentially unspoiled. But for how much longer?

Usually problem films are content merely to state the problem. But this is a unique problem film in that it offers a possible solution: Why not turn Antarctica into an international park on the order of the US national parks?

An Antarctica World Park could preserve the purity of the region by protecting it from those who would exploit it. According to this incisive documentary, millions of people in 38 countries have already signed the Greenpeace petition calling for such a park.

``Antarctica: The Last Continent'' is itself part of a unique early-warning system. It performs a major international public service by sounding a danger signal loud and clear.

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