SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR Cecil D. Andrus is telling anyone who asks that the Alaskan Lands Bill approved last week by the House Interior Committee is "totally unacceptable" to the administration. It ought to be. The bill repudiates much of what Mr. Andrus and President Carter have been fighting for. It would open to unneeded development and exploitation hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land that should be preserved for later generations.
It is not clear why the House committee caved in totally to those Alaskans who want to use so much of that state's resources now. To do it, the committee had to reverse its positions of just a year ago on dozens of critical issues. It also had to turn its back on the version of the bill that the full House passed over-whelmingly last spring. Interestingly enough, every Republican on the committee voted to reduce the national parks, wildlife areas and other protected lands while the Democrats voted, 20 to 7, against that action.
Without much doubt, the problem of carving up the remaining federal lands in Alaska is one of the most intricate facing Congress. The areas involved are vast. They are rich in resources, from fish and game to timber and oil and gas. The pressures on Congress from both the developmental interests and the conservationists are extremely heavy. Those Alaskans who want the fewest possible federal restrictions left on the land see this bill as their last chance to gain access to the resources they think are necessary to make Alaska economically strong. Conservationists see the bill as the last chance to preserve huge sections of the United States in a pristine state where wildlife and nature remain undisturbed.
No one is sure precisely where the balance should be struck between these interests, particularly when the factors to be weighed vary as dramatically as they do between the timber lands of the southeast and the arctic wastes of the far north. In striking that balance, it is better to err on the side of preserving too much than preserving too little. If too many resources and too much land are kept intact, future generations of legislators can reverse that judgment and open the land to development. But once oil wells are drilled, timber is cut and watersheds are altered, a Congress of the future cannot reverse a wrong decision.
The bill that passed the House a year ago seemed to us to be within the realm of reasonable compromise. The one the Interior Committee has reported out this year is not, particularly in light of the sentiment in the Senate to open up too much of Alaska to development. The House should have no qualms about rejecting the work of this committee and passing again the legislation it approved last spring. If it does not do so, the chances are not good for congressional agreement on an Alaskan lands bill that President Carter can sign -- and remain faithful to what he has said in the past.