IF YOU DON'T want to see oil wells drilled in the legally protected wilderness areas, what are you willing to trade off in return? The long struggle in Congress over preservation of the American wilderness is not over. A list of sites coveted by wildcat drillers is being held hostage to a compromise. While it is possible to envision a decent compromise here, there is no time to lose.
A lapse in present law leaves a gap of one year, from the beginning to the end of 1983, in which the Interior Department can issue drilling leases in the wilderness areas. By the time the permanent ban goes into effect, in 1984, quite a lot of damage might be done. The House has already voted, by an overwhelming majority, to prevent it. The Senate Energy Committee is the arena in which the question will be settled.
The oil, mining and timber industries have a tribal habit of standing around the edges of the wilderness areas shouting that valuable economic resources are being locked away forever. How seriously should you take that claim? Not very. The wilderness areas represent just over 1 percent of the total area of the 48 states, and less than 6 percent of the federal lands there -- Alaska being a special case and not part of this quarrel.
But the oil men and the lumberjacks have one point that deserves a hearing. For every acre of land that Congress has designated as wilderness, there are two more that are in the various categories of consideration for future designation. All the land under consideration -- some 40 million acres, or more than Maryland and Virginia together -- receive the same protection as wilderness. The oil and timber industries appear to sense that James Watt may not be secretary of the interior forever. A sympathetic administration can put a lot of land under consideration and leave it there indefinitely without any action by Congress.
This week, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee, the Reagan administration offered a deal: to lift protection from the land not already at least recommended for congressional approval as wilderness and, except where Congress votes otherwise, not to reopen the issue until perhaps the end of the century. Two decades is too long a moratorium, but this suggestion provides the beginning of an acceptable compromise. The important thing is to get legislation passed before the end of the year, when, otherwise, the administration will begin selling oil and gas leases in the present inadequately protected wilderness.