Washington — The US Senate currently is meeting at 9 a.m. daily in an effort to settle the emotional Alaska lands bill that affects polar bears, musk oxen, moose, grizzly bears, and caribou, not to mention oil explorers, gold prospectors, trappers, politicians, and everyday people who want cheaper gasoline at the pump.
It has been called the greatest conservationist struggle of the century -- "one of the most important decisions that Congress will ever make," declared President Carter at a White House briefing July 21.
It is "oil vs. caribou," according to one version.
It may also be President Carter vs. Ronald Reagan, in the sense that the Republican presidential candidate stresses objection to overintrusion of Washington in state affairs, while the Carter administration is pushing for withdrawal of millions of Alaska acres from commercial exploitation in a form that has stirred up "anti-Washington hatred" among some groups in Alaska.
Environmentalists won a series of key preliminary test votes in the Senate July 22, and did so by hefty-2-to-1 margins, but these are not expected to be definitive. The issue is confused and complicated, and also emotional. The House, with Carter support, has passed a version of the bill that is more pro-environmental than the pending Senate version in the sense that it provides stricter protection for wildlife lands, national parks, national forests, and rivers.
However, those who put greater emphasis on oil exploration and mineral supplies are prepared to try to defeat the bill, by delay if necessary, as was done last year. Ronald Reagan and a new Congress might be more sympathetic, they declare.
It is a battle fought on an enormous stage, for Alaska is one-fifth the size of the entire "lower 48" United States. Nobody knows the amount of oil underground. In one area -- the Arctic wildlife range in northeast Alaska -- a US Geological Survey report released July 22 says there is an estimated 5 billion barrels of oil and nearly 12 trillion cubic feet of gas.
But the Arctic wildlife range, say environmentalists, is the summer calving ground for the nation's largest Caribou herd. It includes 1.2 million acres, and one version of the Senate Energy Committee's bill would open the reserve to possible oil exploration. How much such exploration, using explosives, affect the delicate domestic arrangements of snow geese or the enormous caribou nursery , where 120,000 animals arrive yearly to bear their young?
The political situation is one of the most confused in recent times, as it affects the two Alaska senators.
Ted Stevens, the Republican, leans to President Carter's position.
Mike Gravel, the Democrat (up for re-election this year and facing opposition in the Aug. 26 primary) opposes much of the Carter position.
Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts has amendments backing the Carter position and trying to bring the Senate bill closer to the House version.
Add another complication -- the courts. Judges differ on whether President Carter has authority to withdraw certain lands from exploitation.
Senators Gravel, Stevens, and Tsongas all have amendments to the pending bill. Alaska's Republican Gov. Jay S. Hammond says the Tsongas amendments would make "rational exploration" of the state's energy and mineral resources "virtually impossible."
President Carter apparently doesn't agree. In the White House Monday, he supported the five key Tsongas amendments to make the Senate version more like the House version. He said he had been on the telephone to persuade uncertain senators in what he called "one of the most important decisions that Congress will ever make. . . .. Preserving the priceless heritage of Alaska's natural resources is my No. 1 environmental priority."
The Alaska lands legislation has an aura of presidential politics. Carter would like a victory in Congress, where he has suffered many rebuffs from Democrats. He also supports federal energy regulation.
Republican presidential candidate Reagan, in his acceptance speech July 17, attacked what he called overregulation: "Large amounts of oil and natural gas lie beneath our land and off our shores," he declared, "untouched because the present administration seems to believe the American people would rather see more regulation, taxes, and controls than more energy."