Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) moved to thaw the frozen Alaska lands legislation yesterday by introducing a package of amendments that he hopes both houses of Congress will act on during the lame duck session.
Udall acted after the collapse Wednesday night of informal talks on ways to reconcile House and Senate versions of the 100-million-acre lands bill. Udall's so-called "two bills strategy" is an effort to reach agreement without holding a formal House-Senate conference that would be subject to an opposition filibuster.
The Alaska package has been one of the most controversial measures of this Congress, involving designation of parks, wilderness and other protective categories in as much Alaska land as California and Maine combined. Vast amounts of oil, minerals, timber and other natural resources are at stake in the juggling of energy needs, a tourist-oriented economy and wild-life habitats.
Udall's amendments are an attempt at compromise between his lands bill that passed overwhelmingly in the House and totally rewritten Senate version that passed only after prolonged struggle. "Anyone who reads these with an open mind will see that we are conceding more than we are asking," Udall said.
Aides emphasized that Udall was not making a take-it-or-leave-it offer, but rather had proposed what one called "a blueprint for where a final settlement might lie. It's not written in concrete."
Charles Clusen, head of the Alaska Coalition of environmental groups that supported Udall's orignial position, said his group was satisfied with the proposal although he regards it as bringing the Senate version only one-fourth of the way toward the House view. "It is a bottom line in the sense that it contains the critical issues that must be dealt with," he said.
However, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who was a key figure in constructing the Senate bill, said the amendments were "totally unacceptable. The bill does not meet our basic objectives, is not balanced and will not have my support."
Udall's amendments place another 3.5 million acres under the wilderness label that restricts all development, change boundaries of some lands assigned to state control, reduce a borax mine's designated area and alter the rules to alow somewhat more hunting areas and freer access to private property across protected lands.
The amendments do not mention the highly controversial caribou breeding grounds on Alaska's North Slope, an omission that Udall aides said indicated the Senate version allowing seismic oil exploration there had been accepted.
If Udall's plan works, both chambers would pass the amendments and then the House would pass the Senate version of the full bill.