Month marks anniversary of land act

Both sides reflect on affect of 25-year-old conservation law

Posted: Monday, December 05, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Twenty-five years ago this month, President Jimmy Carter signed an act that placed almost a third of Alaska's land area in federal parks, refuges and the like, laying out a controversial new path for the next-to-newest state.

Dec. 2, the day Carter signed the law, is "a day that will live in infamy," said mining law attorney J.P. Tangen of Anchorage, who was in the thick of Washington lobbying against the law.

"It's all true, I wear a black armband," he said.

Deborah Williams, an Interior Department attorney in Washington who worked to pass the law and years later led the department's Alaska operations, praises the law's effects upon the 49th State.

"This has benefited Alaska and Alaskans in numerous ways, including economically and by adding to our quality of life," she said.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 put 104 million acres of Alaska's 365 million acres in a variety of federal "conservation units."

More than half the land - 54 million acres - went into national wildlife refuges. Another 44 million acres went into national parks and associated preserves. The rest, a few million acres, went into new wild and scenic rivers, recreation and conservation areas and national forests.

The action was the culmination of an intense debate kicked off by an earlier law Congress had passed to settle Alaska Native land claims.

Section 17d(2) of the claims act, approved in 1971, directed the secretary of Interior to withdraw 80 million federal acres from any development or sale and recommend whether the land ought to be put in the conservation systems.

The withdrawals, made within nine months, were set to expire in 1978 if Congress didn't act first. Congress didn't, so in December of that year, Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus withdrew 110 million acres-including the previously withdrawn 80 million acres and more-from state selection or mining claims.

For good measure, Carter declared half of Andrus' new withdrawals as permanent national monuments, provoking fervent protests in Alaska.

Carter's action also prompted an intense, two-year, back-and-forth in Congress. In November 1980, days after Republican President Ronald Reagan's election, Democratic Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona, the environmental community's leading advocate in Congress, accepted a Senate-passed bill he had been trying to amend to protect an even greater area.

"I don't claim that this is a great victory," Udall said at a Nov. 12 news conference in Washington, "but on balance it's the thing to do."

Alaska Sens. Ted Stevens and Mike Gravel had been deeply divided over the proper strategy during the previous two years.

Stevens, a Republican, wanted a bill passed. He had worked constantly on compromise versions and saw the final product as a way to settle uncertainty over Alaska's land and thus open the remaining areas for development.

Gravel, the Democrat, wanted the bill dead. Even Carter's monuments were more palatable because they locked up only half as much land, he said. He also mocked calls by Stevens and then-Gov. Jay Hammond for a unified position.

"There is great unity among lemmings as they march over cliffs into the sea," he told News-Miner reporter Andy Williams in January 1979.

Gravel lost the 1980 primary election. Stevens remains in the U.S. Senate, but he is no longer so convinced that passing the bill was the right thing to do.

"It's not something I would tilt a glass of champagne for," he told reporters in 2000.

And more recently, he has publicly wondered whether he ever should have agreed to passage, since he has yet to secure oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"In 1980, I was promised by the two senators, Sen. (Henry) Jackson and Sen. (Paul) Tsongas, who were managing the bill that withdrew over 100 million acres of Alaska's land, that this area along the coastal plain would remain open for oil and gas exploration," Stevens said during debate last month over yet another attempt to open ANWR.

The promise was subject only to completion of an impact statement from the Department of the Interior asserting that the environmental effects could be minimized, Stevens argues. That document was completed in 1987.

Congress is thwarting the promises it made at the time by refusing to open the area, he argued.

Environmental groups and other senators have said Stevens' argument doesn't hold up. There is no promise in ANILCA to do anything but study the coastal plain, they note.

This legacy debate will continue next week as the House returns from its Thanksgiving break and decides whether to accept a Senate bill that would order oil leasing in ANWR.

A group of mostly Northeast Republicans was able to block the proposal last month. The question next week is whether they will hold be swayed by the administration, House leaders and pro-drilling lobbying efforts.

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