Should more Alaskan parkland be opened to hunters?

By , William A. Turnage is executive director of the Wilderness Society.

Never since Yellowstone was created in 1872 as America's first national park - and the first in the world - has such a massive assault been made against the integrity of the National Park System as that currently being mounted on Capitol Hill. The Alaska delegation, Interior Secretary James Watt, and the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America (WLFA) are trying to remove 12 million acres from the national parks in Alaska. The WLFA has been waging a million-dollar campaign on behalf of wealthy trophy hunters promoting legislation to downgrade these parklands to ''national preserve'' status in order to open them to sport hunting , which historically has been prohibited in national parks.

Far more than hunting is at stake, however. If the lawmakers go along with the Alaska National Hunting Bill (S 49), it will mark the first time in history that Congress, after designating national parks, stripped them of protected status. Thus would a dangerous precedent be set for parks in the lower 48 states , threatening more than a century of work building a park preservation system that serves as the model for 1,200 national parks in other countries around the world.

The bill also would completely unravel the parks provisions of the Alaska Lands Act of 1980. Apart from the fact that this is no time to reopen the controversial Alaska lands issue, which was resolved through difficult compromise less than three years ago, downgrading national parks to provide more hunting territory is as unnecessary as it is unwise. The Alaska Lands Act made handsome concessions to hunters and even gerrymandered park boundaries specifically for their benefit - putting 37 percent of the lands originally proposed as national parks (some 19 million acres) into preserves, thereby leaving them open to hunting. Moreover, taking all federal, state, and private lands in Alaska into consideration, the act left 92 percent of the state - including the vast majority of prime hunting grounds - open to hunting.

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Thus, for the wildlife fund to call this issue a ''showdown'' on hunting is utter nonsense. It is a smokescreen to cover an attempt to begin dismantling the Alaska Lands Act. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, principal author of the bill, raised the specter of worse things ahead himself during Senate hearings: ''If this festers, the next bill I introduce will cover mining, oil and gas, timber, and we'll use this (the hunting issue) as a springboard to get to the other issues that bother us.''

This legislation has nothing to do with whether one is for or against hunting. What matters is the integrity of the National Park System. The bill strikes at the heart of the national park concept. By law, national parks are set aside ''to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.''

Today national parks play a more important role than ever in maintaining unhunted populations of animals in selected areas. National park protection ensures healthy populations of wildlife both inside and outside parks by providing a strong and diverse gene pool for each species. Alaska's parks in particular harbor magnificent populations of species that are scarce or nonexistent elsewhere - such as Dall sheep, caribou, wolves, grizzlies, and bald eagles.

The sport-hunting bill would drastically alter several of Alaska's unique wildlife parks. For example, all of Kenai Fjords National Park, home for thousands of sea lions and other marine mammals, would be downgraded. The bill would effectively eliminate the Gates of the Arctic National Park - a refuge for caribou, wolves, Dall sheep, and grizzlies - by slicing it into two ''island'' parks surrounded by preserves. Likewise, the bill does away almost entirely with the existing Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The Wrangells are the scenic setting for the world's finest Dall sheep. Under the Alaska compromise, 81 percent of these Dall sheep now reside outside the park and thus already may be hunted.

The Wilderness Society counts many sportsmen among its members but we are adamantly opposed to removing 12 million acres of national parks anywhere for hunting or any other reason. If parks in Alaska can be tampered with at the whim of special interest groups, where is the safety of parks in the lower 48?

In passing the Alaska Lands Act, Congress set an example for the world. If the Gates of the Arctic - the nation's second largest park and one of the world's great last remaining wildernesses - can be degraded, can attempted assaults on Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Great Smokies be far behind? The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which may vote on this bill soon, must reject this legislation and keep America's commitment to its National Park System and to future generations for whom our parks are held in trust.

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