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Save the Alaskan Wilderness

By Jimmy Carter

Alaska is America's last frontier, home to our greatest wild lands and vast stores of untapped natural resources.

More than 60 percent of its land is federally owned, including millions of acres of national parks, wildlife refuges and forests.

The integrity of these lands is threatened. As part of the budget process, Congress is counting on more than $1 billion in speculative revenue from oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, now off-limits to exploration and drilling.

If approved, this would result in greatly increased pressure for Congress to authorize lease sales in the refuge.

Meanwhile, Congress is holding hearings to revisit the Tongass Timber Reform Act and increase the clear-cutting of protected old-growth forest in the Tongass National Forest as well as considering the privatization of Alaska's public lands.

Controversies over Alaska are hardly new. But over the years, Congress has forged bipartisan compromises with broad national support -- compromises embodied in a series of landmark laws.

One was the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which granted 15 percent of Alaska's lands with development rights to newly formed private native corporations and made way for construction of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

A second law -- one of my proudest accomplishments as president -- was the Alaska Lands Act of 1980, which designated 104 million acres of new national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands.

The Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990 added an additional 1 million acres of wilderness in the rich coastal rain forest of southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest.

All three laws not only protected America's heritage but also allowed for some development of natural resources and the commercial use of vast areas of the North Slope -- leaving available for development 95 percent of Alaska's most promising oil-bearing lands.

The challenge to these hard-won agreements results not from a change in the nation's vision for Alaska but from last November's elections.

For the first time, two people from the same state -- Alaska -- ended up running the two most important natural resources committees in the Congress, where federal land policy is made.

Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young have made clear their plans to open up the Alaskan wilderness to development.

The new Congress must be reawakened to the importance of protecting the interests of all Americans by protecting public lands in Alaska. For what is at stake is an unparalleled system of federal reserves protecting wildlife, fish and wilderness.

Polar bears, musk ox, wolves and a herd of 150,000 caribou roam the remote coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the far north -- a place often called "America's Serengeti."

My wife Rosalynn and I have been thrilled by this area during our visits.

Grizzly bears, bald eagles and countless salmon grace the magnificent Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. From the Arctic coast to the southern coastal rain forest, Alaska's protected lands guarantee all Americans the opportunity to experience the bounties of the frontier.

For Alaskans, the land supports commercial fishing, tourism and other industries dependent on a healthy environment.

This is a critical time for Alaska's wild lands, and the American people must reaffirm our commitment to their protection. November's election was not a mandate to damage Alaska's environmental treasures.

Poll after poll has shown that the American people remain firmly committed to the protection that makes the unspoiled reaches of our nation the envy of the world.

President Carter's columns are distributed biweekly by the New York Times Syndicate. For more information, please contact the Syndicate at (212) 499-3333.

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