The Senate's great Alaska challenge

The US Senate faces one of the century's most challenging conservation and wildlife decisions: whether to preserve for future generations a significant portion of our public wildlands in Alaska. I strongly hope that the Senate will meet this challenge as wisely as did the House of Representatives last May when it passed a bill protecting some of the most magnificent of our last frontier's federal lands while allowing for ample commercial development. The House bill preserves about a third of the state as national forests, parks, and wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, and wilderness areas.

The Alaska lands issue has fired the imagination of a broad range of Americans. Labor unions, civic groups, environmentalists, sportsmen's groups, and professional organizations have all been actively seeking strong legislation.In 1978, when President Carter took executive action to protect the lands when previous protection expired, he was backed by requests from 1,500 organizations representing 10 million people -- a unique demonstration of strong public feeling.

The House boundaries protect lands of the highest scenic, wildlife, and recreational value but exclude, in almost every case, commercially exploitable resources such as oil, timber, and minerals. There is one area, however, which embodies the classic struggle between conservationist and developer.

The Arctic National Wildlife Range (recently renamed the William O. Douglas Arctic Wildlife Range) in northeastern Alaska was established in 1960 to protect the majestic "Porcupine" caribou herd as well as the moose, musk-oxen, polar bears, grizzly bears, foxes, hundreds of thousands of geese, and other animals in the area. The range is the only portion of Alaska's North Slope notm slated for oil development. The issue now is whether to give the range the highest level of protection -- by designating it a "wilderness" -- as the House bill does, or subject it to oil exploration as does the bill reported by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Democrat Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Republican William Roth of Delaware are leading the fight by offering their Tsongas-Roth bill, similar to the House-passed bill, as a substitute for the committee's bill.

In the range, on the wind-swept, treeless plain of the Arctic tundra, the Porcupine caribou herd bears its young each spring.Each year the caribou return to their traditional calving grounds on the narrow coastal plain tucked between the ice-laden Beaufort Sea and the rugged Brooks Range. The Porcupine is the largest herd in the nation, containing 45 percent of all our caribou. These 120 ,000 caribou roam free in a thousand-mile annual circuit through Alaska and Canada.

Every year, as the caribou migrate, there unfolds in this northern wilderness the awesome spectacle of an endless sea of animals crossing the wild expanses, much as the buffalo once did. Imagine a sea of 120,000 sets of antlers!

National Geographic magazine has called the range our wildest wilderness.Congress has the responsibility to guarantee that it remains wild.

David Roseneau, a leading authority on the Porcupine herd, said in a letter to Senate Energy Committee Chairman Henry Jackson ". . . since the Porcupine herd is our last free-roaming arctic population, not yet subjected to exploration and development activities, we must proceed with utmost caution. Since we do not yet know the long term results of activities . . . it seems premature and rather foolhardy to infringe on the calving grounds of the Porcupine herd."

Because we don't know whether human activities will destroy the herd, we should choose the route which protects it the most.

The Senate should listen carefully to the rural villagers near the range. These native communities scattered throughout northeastern Alaska have coexisted for centuries in a balance with the caribou much as the American Indians of the Great Plains existed with the buffalo. These people desperately want the range designated wilderness to protect the caribou. Prohibition of oil and gas exploration in the range by wilderness designation is the top priority for every community within the Alaskan range of the Porcupine herd.

"So long as we have our caribou, our fish and berries, and other products of the land we can be happy. We have our culture. We have our heritage and our way of life," says Jonathon Solomon, president of the organization of rural communities in northeastern Alaska and Mayor of Fort Yukon.

In a letter to the House of Representatives, Mr. Solomon stated, "[The caribou] feed our families. They are the source of our subsistence way of life . . . . You have the chance to give us this hope. Oil exploration and development would deny us that chance."

Since the range is the only area with significant oil potential affected by this legislation, oil companies naturally claim that a huge quantity of oil could be there. However, the most recent geological evidence suggests that the range lacks the structure and reservoir rocks which characterize Prudhoe Bay and that the field could be small enough to make development uneconomical. The House-passed bill leaves 95 percent of Alaska's high and favorable potential onshore oil lands available for development -- enough to keep our oil companies busy for a long time! Exploration should proceed first in those lands and notm in the one area where the House of Representatives feels the wilderness values far outweigh possible benefits of oil exploration.

The Alaska lands vote will be an historic test of whether this nation is willing to strike a fair balance between development and conservation in the last great area left available for such a decision.

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