Go slow in Alaska

The Senate this week is debating legislation that would provide protection for America's last great frontier wilderness in Alaska. The most controversial aspect of the hotly contested Alaska Lands Act is how much of the federal land to be set aside as wildlife refuges and national parks should be made available for oil and gas exploration. The House of Representatives has enacted a strong environmental measure, supported by environmentalists and the Carter administration. The Senate has before it a weaker version reported out by the Senate Energy Committee, which has the backing of developers and many Alaskans, including the state's two US senators.

Among other things, the Senate Energy Committee bill would delete 37 million acres from national wildlife refuges, downgrade three million acres of national parklands to allow mining, and cut in half two existing national monument areas, opening them to potential clear-cut logging. Senator Tsongas of Massachusetts and other senators have introduced substitute legislation and amendments to strengthen the Senate bill and, in essence, match the environmental protection set out in the stronger House bill. It should be pointed out, however, that even the Senate Energy Committee bill includes important environmental protection measures.

It is to be urged that the Senate, which failed once before to reach agreement on an Alaska lands act, make every effort this time to enact some combination of the proposed measures that will balance the need to safeguard Alaska's irreplaceable wilderness and wildlife areas against the urgent national need to develop new energy sources.

The major sticking point in the stronger Tsongas proposal is that it bars oil and gas studies that could lead to future exploration of the William O. Douglas Arctic Wildlife Range on Alaska's North Slope. Development proponents, pointing out that a major oil find there could help the nation through the energy shortages protected for the coming decades, say that, at the very least, oil companies should be allowed to conduct seismic studies to determine what are the oil prospects there. Environmentalists, however, stress that the range is the calving ground for the nation's last large caribou herd and that too little is known about what impact seismic studies would have on these rare animals.

We favor taking the more cautious route. Closing that section of the North Slope even to oil studies, as the Tsongas substitute bill would do, would in no way deter oil exploration in Alaska. The neighboring National Petroleum Reserve alone is believed by experts to have twice as much oil potential as the caribou rangeland, and this would be open to exploration. The White House argues that even the strongest environmental measures allow exploration in more than 90 percent of the most promising onshore oil and gas acreage and 100 percent of the state's offshore areas.

In short, oil companies would be kept busy for a number of years. If, in the ensuing period, the nation's energy picture deteriorates to the point where the caribou rangelands must be tapped, Congress could easily enact legislation that would open the land to study and eventual exploration. Or Congress could take such a step if, in the meantime, impact studies indicated that seismic soundings could be carried out without undue damage to the North Slope rangeland.

The proposed amendments to the Senate bill provide for an eight-year study of the environmental impact which seismic soundings would have on the range. The Energy Committee bill proposes a two-year study. The senators should be able to work out a compromise.

Further bolstering the argument for going slow on the Douglas range are recent studies by the US Geological Survey which indicate that any oil found there is apt to be heavier than normal crude oil, which means that no more than 20 to 25 percent of it is likely to be recoverable.

Of the 375 million acres of land in Alaska, the Carter administration-backed bills would protect more than 100 million acres for future generations of Americans who, without such set-asides, may never have the opportunity to experience the kind of wilderness area that once covered vast areas of North America but have since vanished before creeping civilization. Alaska provides an opportunity to protect whole land areas before they are altered by man. Advocates of protection point out that there are no more Alaskas. The Alaska Lands Act needs to take into consideration the nation's energy needs, but tomorrow could be too late for lawmakers to reverse a wrong environmental decision made today.

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