The Carter administration asked Congress yesterday to set aside nearly one-fourth of Alaska for future generations, a move that promises to rekindle an environmentalist-developer battle of epic proportions.
Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus told a House interior subcommittee he wants pieces totalling 91.7 million acres, which together would be the size of Montana, put into 10 new and three existing national parks, nine new and five existing wildlife refuges, 33 scenic rivers systems and two existing national forests.
"Through enactment of our proposals, we can be certain that the crown jewels of Alaska - its most spectacular natural environments, recreation areas and wildlife habitats - will remain in trust for the benefit of our nation's children," Andrus told the lawmakers.
A keystone of the plan, which was being worked on during the Ford and Nixon administrations, is setting aside what the Interior Department calls "entire ecosystems and watersheds."
That will make it easier to preserve existing conditions, the department says, avoiding what calls "costly mistakes made for more than a century in setting aside lands and waters for preservation in the lower 48 states."
The land Andrus wants to lay claim to, dotted throughout the state in more than 30 separately identifiable chunks, is also rich in mineral, timber and commercial resources which developers and business interes have indicated they would like to capitalize on.
Congress will have to settle how much Alaska's 375 million acres should be protected. Bills now before it, pushed by environmentalists, would preserve 120 million acres. But opponents argue that would block future development of oil and gas reserves, mineral deposits and forests.
Andrus tried to blunt criticism from developers as he unveiled the plan before the subcommittee on Alaska lands.
"Our proposal involves 92 million acres. The state of Alaska will be receiving 103 million acres, much of which will be open to development. The natives are receiving more than 44 million acres, much of which will be developed."
The administration plan would more than double the size of the present national park and national wildlife refuge systems.
It includes lands that range from high mountain peaks to coastal estuaries, from tundra to dense forests. And the variety within them is immense.
The largest proposed national park, 18,000-square-mile Wrangell-st. Ellis, would contain a glacier larger than the state of Rhode Island, as well as the nation's greatest collection of peaks higher than 16,000 feet.
Southeastern Alaska's one-million-acre Admiralty Island, proposed for a wilderness, has more bald eagles than all of the lower 48 states.
The proposed Lake Clark national Park and Preserve contains bear, wolf, wolverine, mink, marten, lynx, otter, muskrat, caribou, dall sheep, 100 species of birds including the endangered peregrine falcon, and two active volcanoes more than 10,000 feet high.
Mt. McKinley National Park, set up at 1.4 million acres in 1917, would be enlarged to 5.7 million acres and renamed Denali, the Alaskan native name for the highest peak in North America.