Picture, no caption, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

Ten years ago, when corporate exploiters began going after the wealth of Alaska in earnest, the public was told not to worry. It was only a few caribou that would be disturbed.

Today the price of progress is still small, according to this thinking. Now it's only a few drunken Eskimos.

A University of Pennsylvania report last month on the sudden effects of energy development in Alaska's North Slope oil fields found that alcoholism and violence have become major social problems among the Inupiat natives. In one town of 2,000, the alcoholism rate is 72 percent. Homicide and suicide have increased markedly. One of the sociologists said, "Offshore development is expected to peak in 2010 or 2015. We don't see the Eskomo surviving until then."

What probably will survive is the spirit of exploitation that was on view the other evening when the Senate again debated the Alaska land preservation bill. With most of their colleagues having left for the main festivities of the evening -- a congressional kickoff dinner (as against a payoff dinner) -- Alaskan Sens. Mike Gravel and Ted Stevens maneuvered an agreement that would postpone debate of the bill until next July.

The chances are now increased that no bill at all will emerge from Congress this session, just as none was passed during the last session because of the choas of the last-minute rush. The Alaska lands bill had been called the major environmental issue of the 1970s. But with one decade's worth of debate already frittered away, it appears as if a running start is under way to delay a final settlement for another decade.

The Carter administration, which favors immediate and strong protections, responded to the Stevens-Gravel stall by using the emergency provisions of another law to set aside 40 million acres of land as wilderness. That was a useful move, except it isn't the way the process is meant to work.

But nothing seems to be working in this seemingly doomed effort to protect the country's last unspoiled area from rape-and-run land abuse.

In the aggression against Alaska, the energy, timber and mining corporations and their couriers to Washington, Stevens and Gravel, have been able to make much of the country forget that these are publicly owned lands they are hot to drill, mine pave, blast or level. The corporate entity is thus able to do what no individual would ever be allowed to get away with: treat public land as private property.

More audacious: through heavy investments in lobbying and media "public education" campaigns, they have kept the public's representatives -- the politicians -- from enacting a law to protect what the public already owns. The second Alaskan Land Rush includes the constant rushing around Capitol Hill to ensure that the use of government land be kept a matter of exploitation, not ethics.

The companies currently coveting Alaska are driven, like geologic forces, by the same compulsions that led other companies to run over the land -- Appalachia, the Great Plains, the agricultural valleys -- as if natural objects had no rights. In the environmental classic "Should Trees Have Standing?" Christopher argued persuasively that, "if the law regards the American corporation as a legal entity, with rights and responsibilities quite apart from those of its officers, employes or shareholders, is it so unthinkable to grant similar rights to a stream, forest, a mountain range?"

For thousands of years, the natives of Alaska, from the Inupiats in the north to the Tlingits in the southeast, have had cultures that respected those rights. The threat of sacrificing those cultures should have been a major reason to turn back the energy companies before they were allowed to attack the North Slope and other areas. It was a moment, to paraphrase E. F. Schumacher, for exploration as if people mattered. Environmental impact statements offer at least a few minor assurances against the worst kind of assault against the land. But what of human impact statements?

In alaska, the pattern of victimization keeps on: Only after the worst has happened to families are the psychiatrists and sociologists brought in, and then not to prevent the destruction, but to measure it.