For a murderous mountain, McKinley looked benign. A 20,320-foot cream puff suspended over the clouds in a baby blue sky. Denali, the Indians call it: "The Great One."
Glued to the windows of a low-flying plane, the party from Washington marveled at the mountain, rising suddenly from an olive plateau. Below, the Sustina River braided in an ever shifting channel. Ahead lay a turbulent landscape of pitted glaciers, some delicately suspended from stark peaks like frozen waterfalls, others scouring mountainsides in black and white highways.
"Alaska," said the congressman from Ohio, "is the most beautiful place in the world. Everywhere else, man has so altered the land that the original patterns are lost forever. Nowhere else but Alaska can one see so clearly the hand of the Creator."
The congressman from Arizona nodded. "We are engaged in an historic operation," he said. "The sort of thing that comes along rarely in the life of a nation."
The congressman from Washington State signed. "It's so spectacular," he said. "You come up here and you want to put every damn place in a national park."
Sentimental, noble, greedy . . . the passions stirred by Alaska have blossomed this year into a giant piece of legislation, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, sponsored by Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz), chairman of the House Interior Committee.
"It is one more sad case where some bigoted ass in Washington 'decides' for the poor dumb colonists out on the frontier," complained a spokesman for the Alsaka Wildlife Federation and Sportsmen's Council. "An [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of our rights as equal citizens under the American flag."
Udall, John Seiberling (D-Ohio), Lloyd Meeds (D-Wash), dozens of other congressmen and scores of bureaucrats who traveled here this summer don't see it that way.
Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus calls it "the most important land conservation program in the history of this country." It is the highest priority for every major national environmental group and the lowest priority for such corporations as Exxon, Gulf, Kennecott and Anaconda.
No wonder, Udall's bill would create 147 million acres of federally protected wilderness - 10 times the amount that now exists in the nation. Conservationists are delighted by the idea of preserving 40 per cent of Alaska intact. An area more than four times the size of Maryland and Virginia combined, the wilderness would include 14 wildlife refuges, 23 wild and scenic rivers, and 13 new or expanded national parks, more than doubling the size of the national park system.
"We are running out of parks in the lower 48 states," Udall said. "Alaska is the last great unspoiled piece of America still within man's saving."
The idea of massive reclassification of federal land has aroused widespread public controversy. More than 2,000 witnesses have testified before House Interior Committee hearings in Washington, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle and Denver, and in Anchorage, Fairbanks and other Alaskan towns.
Oil, timver and mining companies, labor unions, sportshunters, the Alaska Legislature and the Alaskan congressional delegation all oppose the Udall bill as a "lock-up" of important economic resources and an infringement of states' rights.
"These vast, arbitrary designations will have a disastrous impact," said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). "State and native lands will have very little value because there won't be access across federal lands. Ninety per cent of the state's hydropower sites will be eliminated. There's very little recreation in wilderness areas, only for the select few - mainly the young."
T.L. Lewis of Gulf Energy and Minerals Co. testified for major oil companies, warning that the bill could have an "adverse effect on the nation's energy supply, economy and national security" by cutting off oil reserves from icefree ports.
State politicians and businessmen are backing a rival bill sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that would place 19 million acres in wildlife refuges, parks and wild and scenic rivers, and 57 million acres in a new category to be classified in the future by a federal-state commission.
The Stevens bill is given little chance of passage - few suspect Congress is about to give up any power to a state. But once the Carter administration submits its recommendations in mid-September, Udall said a compromise will be drafted.
The final bill is likely to redefine the traditional concept of wilderness to allow airplane, motorboat and snowmobile access - considered essential in a state with almost no roads. The area of new parks and refuges will probably be reduced from 115 million acres to slightly under 100 million, with some boundaries redrawn around possible mineral sites. The amount of wilderness - undeveloped, roadless land more restricted than parks - will also diminish from the present 147 million acres, which includes existing parks.
Numbers, classification, agency jurisdiction, boundary definitions, access regulations - these are the tedious controversies of legislative wrangling in the months ahead. But for those who have seen Alaska, the vision of the land will remain after all the chips have fallen into place - a legacy of wildness, of the awesome diversity of the natural world.
"The sweep of the land is just staggering," said Seiberling, voicing exactly the sentiments of two dozen congressmen, staffers. Interior Department officials and reporters on a whirlwind two-week inspection tour recently. Although they flew 6,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Beaufort Sea, from the Seward Peninsula to the Canadian border, it was but a small sample of Alaska's many landscapes.
The state, two and a half times the size of Texas, stretches across five time zones, yet its population, most of which lives in two cities, is half that of the District of Columbia. Thus, an immense calm, free of human acitvity, engulfs this semi-continent. Each visitor feels himself Lewis or Clark, exploring wide regions of primeval territory.
At Mt. McKinley National Park, the first stop, spruce trees dotted the flat plain below the mountain - lone sentinels by the banks of dry creek beds. Below the helicopter, the setting sun glinted off the fur of a grizzly and her cub, galloping on all fours.
The Udall bill would enlarge the park's original 1.9 million acres by 4.7 million to include the entire mountain, half of which now lies outside the park, and tundra fields that support bears, wolves, caribou, trumpeter swans - a variety of wildlife that can be seen in only a few places in the world.
The Alaskan park proposals are ambitious on an unprecedented scale. Several would be many times the size of Yellowstone, now the nation's largest park. They encompass entire ecosystems - a controversial concept.
"Alaska is still a place where the grizzly bear can roam," said Cynthia Wayburn, a Sierra Club representative. "It takes one barren-ground grizzly bear 100 square miles just to feed himself and rear his young. If you draw a line halfway through that ecosystem and only permit the bear 50 square miles, he'll die out." Thus, grizzlies and other large mammals like wolves and caribou are now endangered species in the lower 48 states.
Also, biologists argue low productivity of northern plants and animals requires more land to be preserved. The range of the western Arctic caribou herd supports two animals per square mile. In Vermont, by comparison, 28 white-tailed deer can feed well in one square mile.
But preserving large ecosystems could strangle the state's economic potential, many Alaskans argue. "We are saddled with responsibilities as America's last great storehouse of resources," said Gov. Jay Hammond. "It is not easy to be both oil barrel to the nation and national park to the world."
In McKinley, for example, additions include kantishna hills, a historic mining district for small prospectors.
Earl Pilgrim lives in an old log cabin next to a mine where for 35 years he produced antimony, a crystalline element used to make alloys. The market hasn't justified the cost of working the mine since 1970, but Pilgrim is still hopeful.
"I'm only 84, so I've got quite a bit more work to do," he said. "I don't have any question but I'll live to be 100 unless a grizzly gets me. There's some good showings of zinc and lead (nearby) and a coal seam 18 miles from here."
So far, Pilgrim is typical of Alaska miners - rugged, independent, lone prospectors with a low profit margin. Although 30 large mining and oil companies are exploring for minerals, there are only three operating mines in Alaska of any size - coal near Fairbanks, barite, a mineral used in paint, in the Southeast, and gold in the Northeast.
However, miners claim that deposits not economical now will be so in the future and should not be restricted in parks and wildlife refuges. Udall says the boundaries will be drawn to exclude most significant mineral sites.
Among the most controversial proposals are a wilderness classification of 4.4 million acres of the Tongass National Forest, and a 16-million-acre park and preserve in the Wrangells mountains, both in Southeast Alaska.
A wild domain of rock and ice, deep valleys and winding rivers, the Wrangells, but Kennecott's copper mine, its turn-of-the-century buildings nestled on a steep slope, has been abandoned since 1938. Still, geologists and miners say the wealth is there to be discovered. An enormous sign bulldozed on a sandbar along the Chitistone River attests to their sentiments: "Sierra Club Go To Hell."
Further south, the lush rainforest of the Tongass hugs the beaches of the Gulf of Alaska. There, a more promising discovery of Molybdenum, used to strengthen steel, has been made by U.S. Borax Co. close to Misty Fjords, a glaciated Yosemite of spectacular scenic value. "The beauty of Misty Fjords is a scarcer resource than Molybdenum," the Wilderness Society insists. The state isn't convinced.
Labor unions and paper companies say the Tongass wilderness would cost 6.000 jobs - a figure the Interior Committee disputes. "I have yet to see avidence a single job will be eliminated," Seiberling said.
Udall decried "the priceless natural values and vital fisheries being destroyed daily in order to maintain a steady pulp supply for Japan. The Forest Service has plans to cut 98.4 per cent of the commercial timber in the Tongass within 50 years, a region where it takes centuries for the ecosystem to recover."
The committee visited the delta country of the Southwest where the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers flow out to sea and the lakes flood the tundra like footprints of a prehistoric monster. In wildlife refuges there, the most productive in Alaska, 300 bird species from six continents breed and raise their young.
The rivers of Alaska are all wild and scenic, clean enough to lie belly-down and drink with no though of polution. The Udall bill would preserve 23 from development. Their names flow in ancient rhythms - Anaktukuk, Nowitna, Unakakleet, Ikpikuk - although the natives who live along their banks now call themselves Igor. Anastasia and Vladimir in honor of the Russian missionaries who first christened them.
Like the whites, natives are divided over the wilderness proposals. Some are development-minded, concerned that they won't be able to transport their oil and minerals on roads or in pipelines across federal parks. Others want to preserve as much wilderness as possible, so they can hunt and fish as they have for centuries.
In the village of Togiak, where seal oil, smoked salmon and wild birds are basis of the diet, and of the culture, Eskimo elder Sam Fullmoon testified before the Interior Committee.
Before white men came to Alaska, "It was quiet," he said. "And the land was not broken."
Now, "If we do not spare this land, God in His infinite tolerance may forgive us, but our children never will."