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Meeting on Bush enviro proposal draws disparate views


SPOKANE, Wash. -- Well, it was billed as a "listening session."

More than 180 people signed up to speak at the first public hearing on the Bush administration's "cooperative conservation" plan, which is seeking ideas on how groups with radically different goals can work together to protect the environment.

"I don't believe Washington, D.C., has all the answers. Neither does the president," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in opening the first of at least 24 planned public meetings.

The Bush administration, which held a conference on the topic last year, defines cooperative conservation as the efforts of landowners, communities, conservation groups, industry and government to work together to preserve the environment.

Many speakers applauded the concept, and some pointed to examples where groups had already cooperated to protect the environment, but many others were skeptical.

Washington state Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said it was paramount that private property rights be protected from bureaucrats and special interests.

"Only the private property owner has anything tangible on the table," Kretz said.

Kretz contended that restrictions on logging were partly to blame for forest fires in his district. He also noted that efforts to open a gold mine in Okanogan County had bogged down for years because of environmental concerns.

He directed his harshest criticism at efforts to save Columbia River salmon runs, noting that millions of dollars are spent on salmon recovery each year. Several of the runs are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and there have long been battles over whether to breach four dams on the Snake River to make it easier for fish to reach spawning grounds.

Kretz said salmon are now returning in large numbers.

"We have developed a salmon recovery industry," fueled by electricity ratepayers and "the urban ignorant," Kretz said.

Other speakers called for changes in the Endangered Species Act and other long-standing environmental laws they said are inefficient.

Robin Meenach, vice president of the Washington Farm Bureau, said cooperation will only work if it is voluntary and if property owners are compensated for any land lost to environmental protection.

She noted that a Farm Bureau-backed initiative on the November ballot in Washington would require state and local government agencies to either compensate private landowners for regulations that harm the value of private property or tp waive the requirements.

"Capitalism has served us well, not socialism," Meenach said.

Meenach also took shots at salmon recovery efforts that seek to divert water to fish passage from other uses, like farming.

Others had high hopes for the president's proposal.

Keith Phillips, from Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's office, said a recent deal on allocating water from the Columbia River required the cooperation of many parties.

"Competition for water had led to gridlock on the river," Phillips said.

Mike Petersen of The Lands Council, a Spokane-based environmental group, said cooperation helped facilitate a recent landmark agreement to improve the Spokane River.

But he warned that cooperation requires lots of time commitment, and all parties must be at the table.

"We need to stay with existing bedrock environmental laws," Petersen added.

Rob Masonis, Northwest director of American Rivers, urged the panel to make sure that independent scientific and economic analysis of issues is used.

"When you have competing science and economics, it is inefficient," he said.

There were 183 people who signed up to speak at the meeting, along with seven people invited by the panel and members of the panel. In addition to Kempthorne, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Steve Johnson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall and Ron Kreizenbeck, regional EPA director, attended the meeting.

Johnson noted that one piece of proposed legislation under the concept would help volunteers begin cleaning up some of the 500,000 abandoned mines in the nation by removing legal liability for cleanup work.

"President Bush is engaging our eager army of citizen conservationists," Johnson said.

Comments from the 24 meetings will be studied and the best proposals will be considered, Kempthorne said.

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