Alaska is America’s last frontier, home to our nation’s greatest wildlands and vast stores of untapped natural resources.
More than 60 percent of its lands are federally owned, including millions of acres of national parks, wildlife refuge and forests.
But the integrity of these lands is now immediately threatened. As part of the current budget process, Congress is counting on more than $1 billion in speculative revenue from oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is now off limits to exploration and drilling.
If approved, this back-door approach 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 clearcutting 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 been able to forge bipartisan compromises with broad nationwide support. These compromises have been embodied in a series of landmark federal 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 also 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 provided special consideration for resource development and concessions for commercial use of vast areas of the North Slope - leaving available for development 95 percent of Alaska’s most promising oilbearing lands.
The challenge to these hard-won agreements results not from a change in the American people’s vision for Alaska but from last November’s elections. For the first time two individuals from the same state - Alaska - ended up in charge of the two most important environmental committees in the House and Senate, where federal land policy is made. Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young have made clear their plans to open the Alaskan wilderness to development.
The new Congress, including these new chairmen, must be convinced of the importance of protecting the interests of all Americans by protecting public lands in Alaska. What is at stake here 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 personal visits.
Grizzly bears, bald eagles and countless salmon grace the magnificent Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. From our Arctic coast to Alaska’s 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 the future of Alaska’s wildlands 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.
MEMO: Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977-81. He now heads The Carter Center, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization in Atlanta, Ga., which operates programs in more than 30 countries to promote democracy, development, health and urban revitalization.