The Alaska lands bill, the most sweeping wilderness legislation in U.S. history, is expected to come before the House today. Both industry and environmental groups predict the vote will be close.
Last year, a conservationist-backed version that would have doubled the size of the nation's parks and wildlife refuges passed the House 277 to 31, but died in the Senate. This year, the legislation has become tangled at the outset in the emotional politics of energy, gun control and states' rights.
"The timing couldn't be worse," said one administration lobbyist. "The Iranian oil crisis and a weekend of lines at the gas station are turning this into a cheap energy vote."
A major issue is whether to allow oil exploration in the Artic National Wildlife Range, a 9.9-million-acre refuge that protects the calving grounds of North America's largest caribou herd. An industry-backed bill sponsored by Reps. John Breaux (D-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) would encourage exploration.
The environmentalists and the administration favor a bill sponsored by Reps. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) and John B. Anderson (D-I11) that would close the Arctic Range but leave 95 percent of the state open to oil drilling.
Oil Industry geologists beleive the Arctic range could be another Prudhoe Bay, the richest oil field found in a decade. But recent drilling along the range border indicates it has only minor deposits, according to the former chief geologist of the State of Alaska.
"Do not let anybody kid you that this vote is going to put some heating oil in somebody's house in Massachusette this winter or has anything to do with Saturday gas station closings," Udall told the House last week. "If we turn loose every oil drilling rig in America today, you are talking about 10 or 15 years before the oil starts coming on line.
'The American people want to find and develop the oil resources in Alaska. But I do not think they want to ransack the national parks."
But Steven Symms (R-Idaho) calls Udall's bill "The Middle East Oil Dependency Act." He says, "Most people in other states cannot afford to go [to Alaska] and visit those vast wilderness areas anyway, and they would probably much prefer to have oil and minerals as opposed to millions of acres of additional wilderness area."
Oil versus caribou-it's an appealing shorthand, but a misleading one, according to both sides. The Alaska debate, embodied in bills running more than 300 pages each, is a complex web of issues of involving the rights of backpackers and hunters, of Eskimos, loggers, miners and settlers, of Alaskans and of the East of Americans.
Both sides claim to strike a balance between wilderness preservation and resource development, and both claim to be the most "conservationist." Indeed, the Breaux-Dingell bill would set aside 128 million acres of land - 16 million more than the Udall-Anderson bill. However, it would leave more acres open to mining, hunting and motorized recreation than the Udall-Anderson bill would.
"I was a little bit amused that [Dingell] accuses us of locking up [the wilderness] on one hand and on the other hand he tells us his lockup is bigger than our lockup," Udall said.
Environmentalists say Alaska is the nation's only opportunity to set aside whole ecosystems free of pollution and development. In the lower 48 states, national parks often have been fragments of natural areas, whittled down through political compromise.
However, the State of Alaska, which has appropriated $2 million to fight the Udall bill, views it as a massive federal land grab. Alaska, which is allowed to select 105 million acres of federal land under the Statehood Act, wants 10 million acres of the land Udall would place in national parks and refuges.
Also lobbying for the Breaux-Dingell bill are six representatives of the U.S. Borax Co., which wants to mine a huge molybdenum deposit in the Misty Fjords, a wilderness area in southeast Alaska. Both bills would allow the mine, but Udall's would authorize stricter environmental regulations on its development.
A critical new factor in this year's debate is the presence of the National Rifle Association, spurred to action by Dingell, who is on its board. The NRA has mounted an organized campaign against the Udall bill, providing the manpower and grass-roots activity that the oil-mining and timber companies lacked last year.
Administration officials view the House vote as especially critical because the Senate is likely to pass an industry-oriented bill. If the House bill doesn't lean toward conservation, they argue, the result will be a victory in conference for "the rape, ruin and run boys." as Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus calls industry officials.
In that case, President Carter has hinted strongly, he will not hesitate to veto the bill. Carter already has designated 56 million acres as permanent national monuments-an action he took after Congress failed to do so in a bill last year. He has authority to set aside even more acreage as permanent parks and refuges. CAPTION: Picture, The Misty Fjords, which the U.S. Borax Co. wants to mine, is one of Alaska's vast wilderness areas. By Ted Whitesell