A bill environmentalists call the conservation measure of the century, one that would set aside about one third of the state of Alaska as parks, preserves, wildlife refugees, wild and scenic rivers and wilderness areas sailed through the House yesterday by an overwhelming 227 to 31 margin.
In a single stroke, the bill would double the size of the U.S. national park system, adding to it some 102 million acres, an area equal to the size of the state of California.
That fact has caused environmentalists to liken it to other historic conservation measures such as establishment of Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872 and the creation of the National Forest System by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s.
The bill was a developer-versus-environmentalists controversy. It was opposed by mining and timber interests. The Teamsters and building trades unions as well as most Alaskan officials, including the state's governor Jay Hammond, its two senators and its lone House member, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).
Though the bill easily passed the House, passage by Congress this year is far from assured, since Alaska's two senators - Ted Stevens (R) and Mike Gravel (D) - have threatened to filibuster the bill in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-WVa.) has said he would not attempt to shut it off, since the Senate traditionally does not pass bills affecting states that are opposed by the state's senators. However, the margin of passage in the House will put some pressure on the Senate to act.
Rep. Lloyd Meeds (D-Wash.), a leading opponent of the bill, said it would "effectively stop hard-rock mineral exploration and development" on the lands in question. "We simply cannot lock up" the land "when we need the minerals we do in this country," he said.
But Interior Committee Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) arged that Alaska is the last great expanse of wilderness left in this country, saying, "There are no more Alaskas, there are no more opportunities" to preserve wildlife and wilderness. Udall also argued that it was a balanced bill that put 70 percent of the land minerals outside the system and left 100 percent of high-potential oil and gas land open to development.
The parks, wildernesses, refuges and preserves designated in the bill are scattered throughout the state, from the rain forests in the southeast to the frozen tundra near Prudhoe Bay in the far north. In some cases existing parks were merely expanded.
Environmentalists argue that the land mass in Alaska is a fragile eco-system and must be left intact in order to maintain its wildlife populations of bears, musk ox, caribou and hundreds of species of migratory birds.
Until Alaska became a state in 1958, the federal government owned virtually all of its 375 million acres. Upon statehood, the state was allowed to select 104 million acres for itself by 1984. Native inhabitants of Alaska, Eskimos and other Indian tribes, were granted the right to another 44 million acres by the Alaskan Native Claims Act of 1971.
Alaska, which is twice the size of Texas, has a population of about 405,000.
The 1971 act also allowed the Interior Department to withdraw from state and native claims some 80 million acres for the parks system. It also required Congress to act before Dec. 18 of this year on adding lands to the park system.
Udall contends that if a bill is not passed by Dec. 18, "the bulldozers" will begin despoiling the lands. Opponents say a bill extending the deadline could easily be passed.
Young contended that the bill prevents the state from selecting some 5 million acres it is entitled to by the land gram by shutting it off in parks and wilderness. Udall contended that the land is "inholdings" in parks and that the state should not own land in the middle of parks and wilderness areas but is free to choose other land outside that area.
That major fight in the bill was over how much land should be designated a wilderness, the highest conservation classification which generally shuts off all commercial development.
All of Maryland's representatives supported the measure except Reps. Goodloe E. Byron (D) and Marjorie S. Holt (R), who did not vote. In the Virginia delegation, only W. C. (Dan) Daniel (D) and David E. Satterfield opposed the bill. William C. Wampler (R) did not vote.
The bill calls for about 66 million acres to be designated wilderness. Meeds offered an amendment that would cut that amount to 33 million acres. Meeds was defeated 240 to 119.
An amendment was adopted, however, that would require continuation of U.S. Geological Survey mineral assessment programs on the lands, and to require the president to submit to Congress recommendations for mineral development procedures by Oct. 1, 1981.
The amendment, by Rep. James D. Santini (D-Nev.), passed by a 157-to-150 vote, and was something of a victory for the mining interests, since it leaves open some possibility for mining on all the lands.