YOU ARE LIKELY to hear a good deal about good guys and bad guys this winter when Congress settles down to carve up - again - the State of Alaska. The issue now is how much of that beautiful land should be tucked away into federal wilderness areas, national parks and so on. It is a controversial topic, not only in Alaska but among conservationists throughout the rest of the nation as well. Those who want to limit the amount of land the federal government protects from development are often described as rapacious exploiters who want to plunder our children's inheritance. Those who want to expand the federal set-aside are usually described as fuzzy-minded conservationists who would destroy the economy of Alaska, deprive its residents of basic rights and restore the colonial rule that statehood eliminated, all for the benefit of a few birds and animals.
The truth is that there are no bad guys in this argument. The preservationists are not wrong in trying to save a large part of Alaska; future generations do have a right to know what the earth looked like and contained before man began to make a mess of it. Their Alaskan opponents are not wrong in seeking to develop the land, a right that their forerunners in the lower 48 states made the most of. Although the two groups are in bitter confrontation before Congress, each should conceded that there is some merit in the other's arguments. The question is one of degree - of just how-much of Alaska's enormous acreage should be used for what purpose.
Finding a proper balance between these interests is a task Congress needs to accomplish by the end of next year, when time will run out on a period of protection from mining and other uses that Congress approved in 1971 for 80 million acres. There is nothing magical about that 80 million figure, but it is central to the debate, being either too much or too little, depending on which side is talking. That is, of course, a lot of land. It is the equivalent of Maine, New Hampshire. Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey. But the conservationists are supporting a bill introduced by Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) that would put 145 million acres into various categories of federally protected land. This would add to the 80-million-acre area the equivalent of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia.
Many, but by no means all, Alaskans are outraged by both the size of the Udall proposal and the restrictions it would place on the use that could be made of this vast acreage. It is in usage, as well as in the total amount of land the federal government decides to preserve, that compromises can be reached. Federal rules and standards that are appropriate for wilderness areas and national parks in the continental United States may not necessarily be appropriate in Alaska. The territory is so vast and so cold, for example, that the general rule against motorized transport and the existence of man-made structures in a wilderness area might lock up the land as no wilderness area elsewhere is locked up. Congress needs to think about this problem in Alaskan terms, adapting the techniques developed for preserving wilderness and parks elsewhere to Alaska's peculiarities.
No doubt there has been a certain amount of grabbing on both sides in this argument. The conservationists are trying to seal off to much of Alaska from any use. Their opponents are also reaching for too much, trying to win the right to mine and timber and exploit too large a part of America's last frontier. Somewhere in between, Congress must find a balance, protecting large areas from any major human disruption and opening other parts of the federal lands for Alaskans to use in some ways, ways that may or may not be comparable to the multi-use standards now in existence. The obligation is twofold: to save much of Alaska for future generations and to leave its present residents sufficient opportunity for developing some of the frontier they have worked hard to open up.