Alaska bill: a referendum on sport hunting in the US?

Congress may be about to take a stand for or against sport hunting in the United States. Backers of Senate bill 49 want to reopen some 12 million national park acres in Alaska to hunting. They say the vote on the bill, introduced by Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, will be a congressional referendum on hunting.

James H. Glass, president of the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America, says: ''Congress will, in essence, be voting for or against hunting - the first time this has happened in modern memory. The outcome will reveal the attitude of the Congress toward hunters and will affect all future decisions on hunting, trapping, and fishing in every part of the United States.''

S 49 and HR 1493, a companion bill introduced in the House by Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, would restore hunting rights on about half the land closed to that activity by the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (or Alaska Lands Act).

Senator Stevens says the proposed ''Alaska National Hunting Act of 1983'' would remove an inequity embodied in the Alaska Lands Act, under which 24.6 million acres were added to the 7.5 million acres already in national parks. Much of the new acreage was prime sport-hunting land, and Stevens says he warned then that revisions would be sought. Now he wants 11.9 million acres reclassified as national park-preserve land so that it can be reopened to sport hunting.

Environmentalists, who lobbied successfully for the Alaska Lands Act, say that Stevens and other sponsors of the revision are acting on behalf of a few wealthy hunters and the Alaskan guides who help them stalk big game such as Dall sheep and Kodiak bears.

Some environmentalists also see S 49 as part of a long-range strategy to open park and wilderness areas in Alaska and other states to such activities as oil drilling and mining.

''Not so much as an acre should be downgraded from true national park status, '' declared Sierra Club exective director Michael McCloskey at a congressional hearing on S 49 April 15. ''Members of Congress are being asked to hand a symbolic vote to hunters and nothing more; but in doing so, you are being asked to directly impair the integrity of this nation's national park system.''

The Wildlife Legislative Fund of America (WLFA), a nonprofit organization based in Columbus, Ohio, is conducting a massive and apparently effective campaign on behalf of S 49. In the past several months, editorials and columns in hunting and wildlife publications as well as in newspapers have urged passage of S 49 and HR 1493. WLFA's literature says the organization ''protects the heritage of American sportsmen to hunt, fish, and trap, and protects scientific wildlife management practices.'' The Sierra Club says the WLFA ''represents the interests of wealthy trophy hunters.''

The WLFA, calling the drive for S 49 a ''showdown'' between hunters and anti-hunters, is rallying America's 20 million hunters to pit their influence in Congress against that of some 3 million militant environmentalists.

Powerful support has rallied behind the Stevens proposal. Alaska's junior senator, Republican Frank Murkowski, is 1 of 19 Senate cosponsors of the bill. There are 75 House cosponsors of the Young bill, and support in both chambers is bipartisan.

Two prominent conservationist groups that backed the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, the National Wildlife Federation and the Izaak Walton League, support S 49. Alaska's Democratic governor, Bill Sheffield, supports the bill, and Don Collinsworth, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, testified in favor of the legislation.

Pointing out that 85,000 Alaskans, or 29 percent of the adult population, purchased hunting licenses in 1982, Mr. Collinsworth said the state's ''hunting opportunities have been an important consideration in many of our residents' decisions to move to Alaska.'' He added that some 6,000 nonresidents purchase Alaska hunting licenses each year and ''these Americans . . . often spend years anticipating the adventure. . . .''

Speaking on behalf of Governor Sheffield as well as himself, Collinsworth said, ''We feel (prime hunting areas) were unfortunately designated as national parks rather than national park preserves.

''It is clearly not in the state's interest to create conflicts between sport hunters and other visitors to our national parks, as tourism is a vital part of the state's economy,'' Collinsworth added. ''These areas are already open to subsistence hunting, which has not discouraged other visitors. . . . We feel there will be few conflicts with back-country recreationists. . . .''

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