ON THE SURFACE, it appears as if President Carter and Secretary of Interior Cecil D. Andrus have solved the great Alaskan lands controversy by themselves. Late in 1978, the president put 50 million acres of federally owned land in Alaska into national monuments. Now, Secretary Andrus has put another 40 million acres into wildlife refuges. That takes care of most of the land that has been in dispute.
But this solution is neither permanent nor satisfactory. Congress can change the status of that land anytime it can pull itself together to do so. And it should -- because the restrictions now placed on this huge area of Alaska are far from ideal. Under the two executive department orders, some land will be excessively protected against use and development and other land will not be protected at all.
That's because President Carter and Secretary Andrus are using the legal authority they have to do jobs for which it was not intended. The Alaskan lands matter should be settled by Congress, which can write new laws tailored to fit the peculiar needs of the Alaskan wilderness.
Congress, however, has not been able to do that because the Senate has been unwilling to grapple with hard questions and matters of senatorial courtesy. The House has twice passed legislation that would provide a reasonable balance between Alaska's need for land to develop and the rest of the country's need for land to preserve. But the Senate delayed the issue in 1978, unitl it was too late for careful consideration, ducked it in 1979 and just last week put it off again unitl after July 4.
This latest delay, especially since it was interpreted in Alaska as a signal that the legislation could be killed again this year unless it was satisfactory to Alaska's two senators, practically invited Secretary Andrus to take the bold step of withdrawing that additional 40 million acres.
But while that solution provides some short-range stability, it serves no one's interest well. It does not resolve the claims of the Alaskan natives. It does not create the new national parks. It does not provide Alaskans with the kind of access to some federal lands they should have. And it does not create the best balance between development and preservation. All it does -- and this, alone, is enough to justify the secretary's recent action -- is to protect that land until Congress gets around to doing the job it should have done long ago.