After one last night of intense but eventually futile lobbying by environmentalists and the White House, the House Interior Committee yesterday approved an Alaska lands bill considerably less restrictive than the version the House passed last year.
The committee's action, a rebuff to the Carter administration and to Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), was a victory for the state of Alaska and for corporate interests eager to develop the state's oil, mineral and timber resources.
In a series of close roll-call votes Wednesday, the committee surprised Udall by rejecting a proposal almost identical to the bill that passed the House by a large margin last year. It would have established tight controls over commercial activity on about 110 million acres of Alaskan country.
Instead, the committee approved an industry-supported proposal by Rep. Jerry Huckaby (D-La.). Huckaby's plan would cover nearly as much acreage as last year's bill but it would categorize much of it differently to permit more development.
The version Udall and environmentalists backed would have set aside about 80 million acres as "wilderness," prohibiting almost all commercial use; Huckaby's bill designates about 50 million acres as "wilderness." The Huckaby bill would halve the acreage designated for national parks and would permit more expansive drilling and mining on several tracts.
One provision of the Huckaby proposal that particularly disturbed environmental groups is its authorization for oil and gas exploration -- but not production -- on the Arctic Wildlife Range, a breeding ground for caribou. Udall's bill would have left this area pristine.
Udall and his committee allies seemed genuinely surprised Wednesday when they lost, by a two-vote margin, on the key ballot approving Huckaby's bill. They quickly devised a strategy putting off final action until yesterday, giving environmental lobbies one more night to try to reverse the victory.
There followed tense hours of meetings and telephone calls in which White House lobbyists and environmental groups tried to convince committee members to shift to the stiffer version and lobbyists for Alaska and oil, mineral and timber vompanies tried to aviod any defections.
Key targets of the lobbying blitz were Rep. Austin Murphy (D-Pa.) and Del. Melvin H. Evans (R-Virgin Islands), both of whom backed Huckaby's bill. Murphy backed Udall on the key committee vote last year, and Evans' predecessor from the Virgin Islands was a staunch supporter last year of the environmentalist's position.
But neither gave ground. Thus when the committee met again yesterday morning, it reported out the Huckaby version of the bill without bothering to vote again.
The Alaska lands bill, which all concerned say is the biggest conservation bill Congress has ever considered, involves acreage about equal to that contained in a square that would have Washington, D.C., Montreal, the top of Michigan and Dayton, Ohio, at the corners.
The committee's action is the first step in what promises to be a long battle over Alaska lands in this Congress. The measure still has to go to another House panel and the House floor, and then to the Senate, which last year rejected the more restrictive 1978 House bill.
Udall said yesterday he will take his version of the bill to the floor as a substitute for the committee-passed version. He said he was optimistic about his prospects because "last year the floor was much tougher on industry than the committee."
But the victors in the committee said they were confident of success on the floor as well. Tony Motley, of the Citizens for Management of Alaska Lands, a pro-development group, said the 1978 election had strengthened his side's position in the House as a whole.
Further, Mlotley said, corporate lobbying against the environmentalists' version of the bill will be stronger this year. "A lot of guys who last year said they didn't have the time are up here working pretty hard already this time," he said.