THE ALASKAN LAND QUESTION - how much of that state do we save in its pristine, natural state for future generations? - has seemed to us all along to be an extremely difficult one. And the narrow margins by which the House Interior Committee has provided its tentative answer underlines the fact.The committee has approved a bill that would put about a third of Alaska into national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. While the amount of land involved is almost as much as that similarly set aside in all 49 other states combined, it is substantially than the committee had been urged by conservationists to protect. It is also substantially more than many Alaskans and developers want the federal government to take.
The competing pressures on the committee has been tremendous. There is the need to preserve this country's last frontier, to maintain at least some of its most magnificent scenery in its original beauty, to protect the habitat of wildlife that exists nowhere else in the country, and to save some of our natural resources for future generations. There is also the need to exploit resources (especially oil) wherever they may be, to give those who live in Alaska a fair shot at developing the economy of their state just as earlier inhabitants of other states developed theirs and to permit Alaskans to use the resources of undeveloped areas - timber and wildlife - in ways quite different from those of the other states. Representatives of all the viewpoints on these needs have leaned heavily on members of the Interior Committee in recent months and are certain to lean just as heavily on all members of Congress in the months ahead.
Frankly, we are not sure how these competing claims should be balanced and how many, precisely, of Alaska's millions of acres should be allocated to fulfill each. But we think that, as in the recent dispute over expanding Redwood National Park, it will be better to err on the side of preserving too much. Once oil wells are drilled, timber is cut and watersheds are altered, what is now Alaska will be no more.
With that as a starting point, it seems to us that the Interior Committee has trimmed more than it should have out of the proposals made by the Carter administration and Reps. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) and John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio). We are bothered by, among other things, the decisions to delete so much of southeast Alaska's national forests from the wilderness category and to open up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. These smack of catering to special interests. While the decisions may have to stay in the bill in order for its sponsors to gain the votes they need to support other aspects of it, we urge them to try to hold the line where it has now been drawn. This version gives the citizens of Alaska to at least enough of that state's resources to develop their economy at a reasonable rate. And it saves the rest for future generations to enjoy - or to use if that should become necessary in a century or two.