The Senate gave final approval yesterday to an Alaska lands bill described by friend and foe alike as monumental American History.
Pressure immediately began building on the House to accept the Senate bill so as to avoid future filibusters that could kill the legislation.
The Senate vote was 78 to 14.
The measure would put more than 56 million acres of virgin Alaska mountain range and wildlife sanctuaries under total wilderness protection, prohibiting any kind of mineral or other development. About another 49 million acres would receive varying lesser degrees of protection that would allow some oil and gas exploration, mining and timber-cutting.
The measure deals with more land than california and Maine combined. Under it, Alaska would have 80 percent of the nation's wildlife refuges and two-thirds of all national park land.
"The bill is balanced, the product of a bipartisan effort," said Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), whose Energy Committee version was totally rewritten into the compromise that won out. "All the groups are a littel bit mad, which proves that we were honest judges."
Attention now shifts to the House, which passed a bill more to environmentalists' liking by an overwhelming 360 to 65 last year. Alaska's senators, Republican minority whip Ted Stevens and Democrat Mike Gravel, have pledged to filibuster any conference report, so a way is being sought to avoid that. Jackson, Stevens and Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), who steered the compromise through the Senate, in effect told the House yesterday to accept the Senate measure and not insist on a conference, or else.
"Any substantive changes in this bill, in my judgment, will kill it," Jackson said. A 63-to-25 cloture vote that shut off a Gravel filibuster on Monday could not be repeated, he added, because at least 12 senators would bolt.
Tsongas said, "There is no credible rallying point left" for opponents in either body. Stevens agreed, telling reporters earlier that he could not imagine a change he would accept without filibustering. "That's not a threat." he said. "That's a promise."
The key House figure is Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Interior Committee and architect of the House version. Acknowledging that he is feeling some heat, Udall insisted he would keep his options open. 'This is much weaker in many ways than I wanted," he said of the Senate measure. "It's important that this issue be put to bed, and the odds are we can get a bill, but it won't be a catastrophe if we don't."
Yesterday's legislation is the much-transformed survivor of a tortuous legislative obstacle course.
In 1971, Congress authorized the secretary of the interior to pick 80 million acres of the "crown jewels of the continent" for preservation, part of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act. In 1973 the Nixon administration opened debate with an 83-million-acre proposal.
The current battles began in 1977 on a 93-million-acre package that was attacked on all sides. Environmental groups said far too much was left out or inadequately protected from the rape-and-run development that had characterized America's early frontiers. Gravel, Stevens and most of the state's officials said too much protection would kill their economy by locking up virgin land before its potential had even been measured.
A house-passed bill died in a Gravel filibuster on the Senate floor in 1978. Udall's next atempt, supported by strong grass-roots work from the Alaska Coalition of environmentalist groups, was the 1979 House package that environmentalists insist must define the final product now.
The coalition holds one final card. President Carter and Interior Secret Cecil Andrus, worried that the Senate might fail again to act, put most of the acreage affected by Udall's measure into monument lands and refuges earlier this year. Only congressional action can fine-tune those total bans on development.