Washington — Congress is readying an environmental gift for Americans: the equivalent of nearly h alf an acre of federally protected Alaskan wilderness for each of them.
In the sultriness of a Washington August, lawmakers appear close to agreement on preserving from development slightly more than 100 million chilly acres in the northernmost state -- nearly one-third of the state that ranks as the country's largest.
Befitting such a prize, the physical features and the legislative controversy both loom of immense proportions.
The protected tracts encompass Mt. McKinley (highest peak in North America), the glaciers of the Brooks Range, the United States' last great virgin forests and unpolluted river basisn, the nation's last large populations of grizzly bears, and nesting grounds of birds from six continents.
The political struggle for control over these lands has locked environmentalists, backed by President Carter, and development interests, supported by the Alaskan state government, in four-year-long Washington lobbying battle.
The environmentalists, who rate the Alaska issue as perhaps the most important conservation decision in this generation, seem to have gained the upper hand.
The Senate approved on Aug. 19, by a vote of 78 to 14, an Alaskan bill only modestly less protective than the version passed last year by the House of Representatives. The Senate would preserve 106 million acres, the House 127 million acres.
The final acreage allotment now appears to rest in the hands of the House. It might wish to bargain with the Senate in a conference committee for a compromise closer to its own bill. Or it might prefer to accept the Senate's to avoid a conference. Proponents of the measure are concerned that a conference would raise anew the threat of a filibuster on the conference report by Sen. Mike Gravel (D) of Alaska. Given the lateness of the session, another filibuster could be fatal.
some environmental interests seem ready to compromise. Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus, while conceding that the Carter administration would like a stronger bill, calls the Senate legislation "a tremendous improvement over anything I've seen" in years of work on the issue.
THe Senate parliamentary struggle that paved the way for Tuesday's vote pitted a flamboyant Senate veteran from Alaska against a low-key freshman from urbanized Massachusetts.
Sen. Mike Gravel (D) of Alaska, with two terms behind him and running hard for a third, used impassioned argument and delaying tactics in an effort to block what he called "a horrible bill -- for the country and for Alaska."
He contended it would deprive Alaskans and other Americans of too much of the state's oil and gas, mining, and lumber resources.
Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, who entered the chamber only at the last election two years ago, is credited with hammering out of compromise bill acceptable to enough of his collegues to win the Senate's first-ever passage of an Alaskan lands measure.
Under the bill he shepherded through the Senate, 350 million of Alaska's 375 million acres would remain open for hunting, 300 million would be open for oil and gas leasing, and 250 million would be open for mining.
President Carter already has withdrawn from development nearly a million acres of Alament program. Sen. Ted Stevens, also from Alaska, said he expects even more land would be withdrawn if Congress fails to act this year.