The Alaskan Assault

For environmentalists, preserving Alaska's Tongass National Forest has long been a sacred cause. R is the nation's last rain forest and home of the continent's largest population of grizzlies and bald eagles. The greens have also worked for years to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the country's biggest wildlife refuge and calving ground for 150,000 migrating caribou. But last week, the Senate passed a bill that will allow loggers to clear-cut swaths of the Tongass, while committees in both houses have voted to let oil companies drill in the pristine ANWR. Alaska Rep. Don Young, a hot-tempered former trapper, has a new name for the preserve: the "Arctic Oil Reserve."

For years, environmental activists were able to count on a Democratic Congress. But the GOP sweep in 1994 is forcing them to deal with a newly powerful trio of Alaskan lawmakers who represent a state with fewer voters than Knoxville, Tenn., but who tightly control committees that oversee most natural-resources legislation. Environmentalists try to depict the current conflicts as a morality play that pits helpless animals and sparkling streams against rapacious developers. The problem is that these lawmakers-arguing that jobs for loggers and oil drillers outweigh traditional preservation worries --are happy to wear the black hats.

The most notorious is House Resources Committee chairman Young. In 1988, he brandished a knife on the House floor when Rep. Robert Mrazek offered a bill restricting logging in the Tongass. At a hearing last year, Young yanked out an oosik (the penis bone of a walrus), and angrily shook it at an Interior Department official who was attempting to fortify the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which restricts walrus hunting.

Young's Senate counterpart, Energy and Natural Resources chairman Frank Murkowski, lacks Young's menacing flair. But he is industry's best friend when it comes to developing the wilderness. Earlier this year, Murkowski hired former timber lobbyist Mark Rey as chief of staff to an influential forest subcommittee. And when the EPA considered placing timber giant Alaska Pulp Corp. on the Superfund list of polluters, Murkowski's office threatened to slash the agency's budget.

Alaska's other senator, Ted Stevens, deftly deploys his seniority on the appropriations committee and his mastery of Congress's arcane ways to get what he wants. Stevens, who is given to sudden fits of rage, shares his colleagues' loathing of what they call the "extreme environmental community."

The three-member delegation, which meets at least once a month to plot strategy, relishes hardball. During a private meeting with Jack Ward Thomas, the Clinton-appointed head of the U.S. Forest Service, Stevens threatened to "zero out" Thomas's salary if he didn't go along with the Tongass plan. Last week, Stevens pushed through a bill that eliminates the job of a Department of Agriculture official, Jim Lyons, who has been a longtime foe of the Alaskan lawmakers.

The group's reach isn't confined to Alaska. Just this month, Young took on the Endangered Species Act, introducing a reform bill that's larded with so many complex regulations that it may be too confusing and expensive to enforce. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt claims it would "effectively repeal" the ESA. Young sneers that Babbitt is just another "Beltway bandit" who wants to take property from local farmers and fishermen to satisfy Washington bureaucrats.

Young has muzzled dissent on his committee, adopting what's known as the "Young Rule": Republicans who wanted a seat had to promise to vote with him on Alaskan issues (in return, he votes for their pet projects). He peppered the ranks with self-proclaimed champions of the West like Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, who campaigned last year at an "endangered salmon bake."

By protecting loggers and oil drillers, the Alaskan lawmakers insist they are just trying to help constituents; timber and oil are Alaska's only real industries. But the trio's tactics are stirring a backlash. President Clinton is threatening vetoes, and Speaker Newt Gingrich is worried that the Alaskans will make the GOP look too anti-environment. But Young, in particular, will be hard to slow down. At one infamous hearing, he insisted steel-jaw traps aren't painful for animals. To illustrate the point, he closed his own hand in a trap and left it there. In the end, Young succeeded in thwarting a federal ban on the traps. When he got up, his fingers were blue.