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Congressional panel debates Northwest Forest Plan's future in Longview

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By Erik Olsen
The Daily News

"If Congress wants more timber cut from federal lands, you need only invest more funds and allow ecological protections and collaborative groups to guide those funds into the most beneficial projects," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest.

Former President Bill Clinton's two-decade old federal forest management plan has killed thousands of jobs and failed to adequately protect the threatened northern spotted owl, forest industry supporters told a congressional committee Monday in Longview.

Efforts by the federal government to double the amount of protected habitat for the spotted owl and old-growth forest ecosystems will only make things worse, panel members said.

"No more wilderness or other land (should be) set aside until we have settled the active management and significant economic questions before us," said Commissioner Paul Pearce of Skamania County, which is dominated by federal forest land.

Eight people testified for about two hours before the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee at the Cowlitz Expo Center. The group consisted of foresters, local government officials, environmentalists, academics and federal timberlands officials.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, the committee chairman, said he called the hearing because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department has proposed increasing protected critical habitat for the spotted owl from 5.8 million acres to 13.9 million on the West Coast. Nearly all of the additional habitat is on federal land.

Fish and Wildlife officials say they plan to develop a final proposal in November.

In 1994, the Clinton administration adopted the Northwest Forest Plan out of concerns that the logging industry was cutting too deeply into environmentally sensitive old growth forests. The plan was developed to end a long conflict between environmentalists and the timber industry. As a consequence, timber production on national forests in the region has spiraled downward ever since.

"I'm not sure how to fix this problem, but I was hoping Congress could help," Tom Fox, president of the Ethel-based Family Forest Foundation, told the committee.

Since the forest management was adopted, the spotted owl's population has fallen an average of 2.8 percent annually over the past 20 years, and Hastings questioned whether setting aside more land is the answer, especially in a tough economy.

"The idea was always to recover species but still allow the way of life that Americans love," said Hastings, a Republican from the Tri-Cities.

Those testifying were split when Hastings asked whether the Northwest Forest Plan has improved overall forest health.

Environmentalists argued that the recession did more damage to the industry than regulation, and the government should not give up on the Northwest Forest Plan.

"If Congress wants more timber cut from federal lands, you need only invest more funds and allow ecological protections and collaborative groups to guide those funds into the most beneficial projects," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest.

Southwest Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, said she doesn't want to see the spotted owl disappear, but she's more worried about disappearing jobs.

"We want to restore what has been lost, but we do so in a way that respects wildlife and the endangered American wage earner," Herrera Beutler said.

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