Back to basics on Alaska
As Congress tries to find a consensus for acceptable Alaska lands legislation, it is frustrating to find that the major stumbling blocks are issues never intended to be part of the present Alaska lands debate.
We find ourselves occupied with issues far beyond the scope of the provision in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that started this process. That provision, Section 17(d)(2), directed the secretary of interior to recommend to Congress vacant, unappropriated and unreserved federal lands in Alaska that should be retained in federal ownership. The secretary was directed to identify the management systems for those lands, including national parks, wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers and national forests.
Federal lands not identified for specific management systems were to be made available to the state of Alaska and to the members of the Alaska native community so they could complete the land selections granted them under the Alaska Statehood Act and the Native Claims Act, respectively.
Somehow, the scope of the original authorizing provision expanded to the point where consideration of Alaska lands now includes previously reserved and designated federal lands -- lands like the National Petroleum Reserve and the Arctic Wildlife Range.
If any issue prevents Congress from reaching a resolution of the Alaska lands bill this year, it will be the issue of oil exploration in the range and in the petroleum reserve.
The major issues contained within the original scope of the 17(d)(2) provision are resolvable. The different sides involved in the lands debate are not that far apart on the question of which unreserved public lands should be retained in federal ownership and under which management systems.
It would be unfortunate for Alaskans and for the nation if the non-germane issues block Congress from obtaining a balanced resolution of the lands issue, because I believe we are very close to obtaining such a bill.
The Senate Energy Committee has spent two years of consideration and a record 60 mark-up sessions crafting detailed legislation that is fair to the people of Alaska and seeks a balance in the best interest of all concerned.
The committee bill designates lands totaling almost 160,000 square miles as parks, monuments, preserves, refuges, forests, conservation areas and wild and scenic rivers. By establishing more than 65,000 square miles of parks, monuments and preserves, the committee bill doubles the acreage of the National Park System. It also doubles the nation's wildlife refuges by adding 64,000 square miles, and it triples the country's wildlife areas.
Although the Senate committee's legislation places into conservation units almost four times the acreage proposed in the lands bill I introduced in the 95th Congress, I still find it acceptable because of its balanced approach.
Some argue that reasonable balance is not that important and encourage imbalance on the side of preserving too much land. They say that if an error is made now, a future Congress can always undo the parks and open to development the resources contained on those lands. Extreme environmentalists have recommended certain lands containing resources of national importance be kept off-limits in park or wilderness status until a national emergency requires production of those resources.
From a national standpoint, such a policy could result in the wholesale destruction of our national park and wilderness systems. The suggestion that Congress merely establish vast parks as "resource banks" for future Congresses to open to development would reverse the hundred-year-old policy of not altering a conservation unit created by a previous Congress. Such a policy reversal would have us considering Yellowstone Park for thermal energy, Glacier National Park for natural gas and the Grand Canyon for hydroelectric power.
An even greater risk of such a federal lands policy is the almost certain environmental damage that will result when a crisis mentality governs resource development. If the national waits to find itself in a true energy or mineral crisis, the rush to locate, develop and transport those resources will most likely be accomplished with little regard for Alaska's fragile environment.
That was our experience with the Alaska Highway, which for a decade our state had requested be designed and built. It wasn't until the national emergency of World War II that the Army in less than a year bulldozed through that 1,400-mile-long road. Thirty years later we are still attempting to correct the damage caused by that emergency undertaking.
Imbalance on the side of preserving too much land is not in this nation's best interest. The Senate Energy Committee followed the more prudent approach of designating as parks and wilderness those areas of spectacular scenery and important wildlife habitat that warrant permanent protection, with the intention of preventing these areas from ever being exploited.
Congress nearly resolved the Alaska lands issue last year with a compromise bill that was fair and balanced. The Senate Energy Committee has produced legislation that approaches last year's accomplishment. It will be in the best interest of Alaskans and of the nation if Congress can achieve that goal.
The writer is a Republican senator from Alaska.