The congressional clock has nearly run out for this year on the massive, controversial Alaska lands bill, often called the "conservation legislation of the century," that is stalled in the Senate Enregy and Natural Resources Committee.
The committee, unable to get a quorum since Labor Day because of the natural gas debate on the floor, has repeatedly postponed meetings, diminishing daily the chances for the measure which would determine how much of Alaska's 375 million acres will be protected in national park, wilderness and other systems.
Intensely committed conservation and development forces are divided over whether Alaska is more valuable to the country as a storehouse of minerals, oil and other resoureces, or as a wonderland of unspoiled scenery and wildlife.All agree, however, that Congress should pass a bill before the deadline of Dec. 18 that was set seven years ago.
The unresolved issues before the Senate committee are few, but sharply debated, and center mainly on the future of timber harvests in south-eastern Alaska: Conservationists want them curtailed and development interests say they are necessary for the state's economic health.
Even if the measure reaches the Senate floor, Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) has vowed to filibuster it. In addition, sponsors of a version the House passed overwhelmingly last spring have declared the Senate committee's decisions totally unacceptable.
Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz) and other House members have said that unless significantly changed on the Senate floor, the committee's version would demand a conference.
While acknowledging that there is no time in this session for a conference. Udall said the committee has made "so many drastic changes" from the House bill "that the basic provisions have been mangled." Although he still hopes for a bill this year, Udall said it now contains "a dozen provisions, any one of which I'd object to."
Energy Committee Chairman Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) and Alaska's other senator, Republican Ted Stevens, are steadfastly working to produce a more lenient bill than the House measure before the October adjournment.
Jackson last week postponed committee mark-up sessions until staff work is complete on the difficult question of southeast Alaska timbering, possibly by Sept. 26, staff members said on Friday.
Whatever the outcome on that remaining issue, the bill has already been made "less than desirable" to the Carter administration, Secretary of Interior Cecil D. Andrus said in a speech on Friday night.
Andrus last fall recommended a minimum of 92.5 million acres for protection under the four classifications of federal "national interest lands." The House surpassed that figure in its 277-to-31 vote in May, designating 103 million acres for the areas, and setting strict prohibitions against mining, oil drilling and other development.
Timber, mining the other industry interests said the House bill short-changed Alaska economically, locking them out of potentially rich resources in too much of the state's land area. Both Alaska senators agreed, although they later parted ways on how to modify the House work.
Tony Motley, spokesman for the pro-development group Citizens for the Management of Alaska Lands, said the Senate committee has "improved on the House bill, because they couldn't have done much worse."
In contrast, the Alaska Coalition, made up of conservation groups, man Destry Jarvis.
"if it's truly going to be a national thinks the Senate banel "knicked us on every issue," according to spokes-national considerations," including use of the mineral, oil and gas wealth of Alaska, Motley argued.
Jarvis contended that Alaska's resources are nearly all to expensive to make their development worthwhile, except in cases of sever national need, and that the government could, in such and event, relax the protections provided in the House measure.
The Senate committee surpassed the House bill in the amount of land to be planced in federal protected systems, but "they downgraded protection, opening it to mining and timber harvests . . . leaving only the false appearance of protection," Jarvis said.
The Senate committee has, so far, decided on 121 million acres, well over the House designation, and, among other decisions, would:
Reduce the House-approved 55 million acres of wilderness to about 25 million acres, leaving the remainder open to multiple uses prohibited by the House.
Allow oil and gas exploration in parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Range, which conservationists believe would endanger the large caribou herds and migratory bird flocks there.
Downgrade the Yukon Flats and Arctic Wildlife Ranges to national forest status, which would allow timber harvests that the House bill would ban.
Open the Gates of the Arctic and Wrangells-St. Elias National Parks to mining.
Make it more difficult for the secretary of interior to ban sport hunting on public lands, but replacing the House provision for administrative restrictions with a requirement for court injunctions.
Place large land areas in what conservationists called "limbo" status by requiring years-long studies before final designation is set.
The history of this struggle over Alaska goes back to the 1958 law making it the 49th state. Congress allowed the state to select 104 million acres of the former federal territory for its economic base.
The statehood act left unsettled claims by native Eskimo, Indian and Aleut tribes that they still owned all of Alaska. The native claims were settled in 1971 when Congress, hastening to give oil companies pipeline access to the rich Prudhoe Bay oil strike, passed a law giving the tribes their choice of 44 million acres. Conservation interests pushed for a requirement in the 1971 act giving Congress until Dec. 18, 1978 to set aside some 80 million acres of the state for wildlife and land protection.
Spoken commitment to meeting that deadline persists on all sides, but each passing day and the continuing disagreements over boundaries and uses reduce the possibility.
After crossing the state in roughly a "Z" formation setting the status for huge parcels of Alaska, the Senate Energy Committee has stalled at what both sides in the issue claim is one of the most difficult issues, the Tongass National Forest and existing timber business in southeast Alaska.
"There is little question of the timber industry being preserved under the House bill," a committee staff member said. After meeting Friday with Jackson and other members, Stevens said they all agreed with him that the bill should not have an adverse effect on the logging economy in that part of the state.
According to staff members, the House bill would, by converting much of the Tongass National Forest to more highly restricted wilderness designation, eliminate about 500 timber jobs and more than 1,500 in other, dependent businesses.
In addition, the House bill could interfere with contracts the federal government has with commercial timber companies for specific amounts of log and pulp wood production, thus opening the possibility of lawsuits.
Stevens said he still believes passage of a bill is possible this year, even if it comes in a special session after the November election.