Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus yesterday closed roughly 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska to commercial development for three years.
The unprecedented move comes a month after Congress failed to act on a massive Alaska lands bill that would set aside roughly a quarter of the state for national parks and wildlife refuges.
The land has been protected from development for the past seven years by a law that gave Congress until Dec. 18 this year to act on its permanent status. Andrus warned several months ago that he would use his authority to protect the land if Congress did not resolve the issue in time.
"This action is aimed at protecting the integrity of Alaska land because it assures that there will be no questionable mining claims or other complications until final decisions are made," Andrus said.
The two-year congressional battle over the future of the vast, uninhabited wilderness of the nation's largest state is expected to resume in January. The administration, the House and the Senate differed over how much land should be protected. The action by Andrus would prevent development on all land still in dispute.
The amount of land involved would double the size of the entire national park and wildlife refuge system in the United States.
Wilderness advocates feared that while Congress makes up its mind, however, oil companies, mining companies and the development-minded state of Alaska could move onto the land and destroy the scenery.
The state of Alaska filed suit two weeks ago to stop Andrus from closing the lands and, Tuesday, the state filed claims to 9 million acres that Congress was considering for protection.
However, after a swift complaint from Andrus, Gov. Jay Hammond agreed yesterday to withdraw the claims if the department speeds up the transfer of lands promised to Alaska under the 1959 statehood act.
Interior officials said yesterday that President Carter may still decide to give permanent protection to some areas of Alaska by designating them national monuments under the Antiquities Act.
This measure could create a furor in Congress, which is jealous of its authority to create parks, and in the West, where huge expanses of public lands might be subject to the same procedure.
The economic stakes are immense in the fight over Alaska, which has only recently begun to be explored for oil, gas and hard-rock minerals. With the shortage of domestic oil, industry looks to Alaska as the last hope for major onshore supplies.
However, an industry spokesman yesterday scoffed at the idea that interim protection is needed for the land until Congress makes a decision. As a practical matter, you're snowed in in Alaska until May, said Keith Knoblock of the American Mining Congress.
"And, contrary to what most people think, the bulldozers aren't waiting at the gate. No company is going to spend money staking a claim when Congress might put away the land," he added.
While industry maintains the land should not be "locked up" in parks until they can explore it for minerals, environmentalists view Alaska as the last opportunity in the nation to set aside large unspoiled widernesses.