THE BATTLE over Alaskan land and wildlife has been going on for more than half a century. The conservationists (who want to preserve much of the state in its pristine beauty) and the developers (who want to use its minerals, oil, timber and game) clashed soon after Mount McKinley National Park was created in 1917, and they have been at it ever since. Last Friday, when the House passed the Alaska lands bill, the conservationists won their greatest victory. The bill gives federal protection of one kind or another to 100 million acres of mountains, valleys and open land. If it becomes law in anything like its present form, the bill will rank in importance with the creation of the first national park a century ago and the National Forest System in the early 1900s.
The issues in these struggles have always been the same: How much land should be left relatively untouched? How much should be given some protection but opened to some kinds of development? How much should be given to the Alaskans to do with as they will? The answers provided by the House in its votes last week seem about right. Although many in Alaska, including most of its leading politicians, disagree, the House has struck an appropriate balance between the state's interest in having sufficient resources available to develop its economy and the nation's interest in leaving something for future generations to enjoy or use as they see fit.
Unfortunately, the path of this bill through the Senate appears to be unusually difficult. Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd has indicated he does not want it to reach the floor so long as Alaska's senators, Mike Gravel (D) and Ted Stevens (R), are threatening to filibuster. Sen. Byrd has said he would not support cloture "on a matter that affects one state" as long as that state's senators vigorously oppose it.
That view of senatorial courtesy might be understandable if the Alaska lands bill were some minor piece of legislation of concern only in that state. But it is not. The land in dispute doesn't "belong to" Alaska any more than the Grand Canyon "belongs to" Arizona or the Mall "belongs to" to the District of Columbia. We doubt that even Sen. Byrd would be willing to give the District's congressional delegate the same veto over the use of federal land here that he seems prepared to give to Alaska's senators.
In thinking about the vast spaces of Alaska and this opportunity to set aside huge amounts of virgin land for the future, we are reminded of what Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur wrote in 1931: "One hundred years from now," as people look back on our use of this continent, we shall not be praised for our reckless use of its oil, nor the weakening of our watershed values through overgrazing, nor the loss of our forests. . . . But we may take comfort in the knowledge that we shall certainly be thanked for the national parks." It is in that spirit that we urge Sen. Byrd and his colleagues to consider the bill the House has passed.