A strong conservationist bill to protect the vast Alaskan wilderness from commercial development swept through the House yesterday by a vote of 268 to 157.
The margin surprised both industry and environmental groups who had predicted it would be much narrower in view of the current gasoline shortage and pressure to develop new petroleum reserves.
The bill, which faces a tough fight in the Senate, is the most extensive land conservation legislation in U.S. history. It would set aside 128 million acres-an area larger than California-in 13 national parks, 21 wildlife refuges, 12 wild and scenic rivers and two national forest wildernesses.
It also would forbid oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Range, the northeast Alaska calving grounds of America's largest Caribou herd. However, 95 percent of lands favorable for oil and gas development would be open for exploration.
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) and John Anderson (R-Ill.), defeated a rival measure sponsored by Democratic Reps. John Dingell of Michigan and John Breaux and Jerry Huckaby of Louisiana. The Carter administration worked hard for the Udal bill, which also received 66 Republican votes, or nearly half of the House's GOP members.
The Breaux-Dingell-Huckaby version would have encouraged exploration in the Arctic range and opened 63 million acres of wildlife refuges to mining. It was heavily supported by lobbyists from oil, mining and timber companies, the National Rifle Association and the state of Alaska.
Udall said yesterday, "While the oil boys are fabled for their (lobby) operation, they were outfoxed by the tremendous sophisticated grassroots lobby of the Alaska coalition." The coalition included every national environmental group.
The vote was expected to be so close that the Interior Department last prepared two press releases, one to celebrate victory and the other bemoaning defeat.
Lobbyists for both sides said that public hostility toward oil companies may have swayed the vote, which was portrayed as a choice between oil and Caribou, or between the protectors of natural beauty and-as Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus put it-"The rape, ruin and run boys."
The fight was much fiercer than last year, when Udall's bill passed the House 277 to 31 and later died in the Senate. President Carter subsequently designated 56 million acres in 17 parks and refuges as permanent national monuments-all of which are included in the new House bill. If the Senate again refuses to act, Carter has vowed to set aside more land by administration ecree.
Rep. Don Young (R-Ala.), charging that the Udall bill would cost 2,000 logging jobs, said: "This is a terrible thing for Alaskans. We are the last colony. We might as well be in Russia.
Young blamed Carter for the vote's outcome, but insisted that "we're not through yet . . . (Carter)'s got SALT to worry about, and I've got a few senator friends."
Rep. Steve Symms (R-Idaho) said Udall's bill represents "the deindustrialization of America" by locking up 70 percent of Alaska lands favorable to mineral development. Udall contends that 64 percent of high priority mineral lands would remain open.
"Major concessions to the mining industry" were incorporated in his bill, Udall said, to permit the U.S. Borax Co. to mine a huge molybdenum deposit in Misty Fjords, a southeast Alaska wilderness, and even to expand its claim there.
The gun control issue, which had threatened to engulf the entire debate, was diffused when the Breaux-Dingell bill was amended to close more acreage to hunters. Thus, 91 percent of Alaska lands would be open to hunting under Udall and 92 percent would have been open under Breaux-Dingell.
The Alaska bill, if passed by the Senate, would set aside for the first time entire ecosystems untouched by pollution, a sharp contrast to the fragmented national parks of the lower 48 states.
The new parks and refuges would contain some of North American's most spectacular scenery-its highest mountains, richest wildlife, most remote river valleys, and ancient archeological treasures.
Among them: Admiralty Island, a million acres of virgin forest protecting the nation's largest concentration of brown bears and bald eagles; a three-million-acre addition to the national park around Mount McKinley, the highest peak in the United States; Gates of the Arctic, an eight-millionacre park astride the little-explored Brooks Range; the Wrangell-St. Elias Park, a 12-million-acre glacier-strewn area, home to the majestic Dall sheep; the Copper River Delta, a salmon spawning area and breading round for trumpeter swans and other water fowl.