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To: Family Farm Alliance
From: John Gaine
Re: House Hearing on the “Evolving West”
Date: March 5, 2007

On February 28th, 2007, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing to “Highlight the Importance of our Nation’s ‘Evolving West.” The focus of the hearing was on economic growth as it relates to the preservation of public lands, the protection of clean water resources, and the production of energy.

The hearing consisted of two panels, the first panel included Governor Brian Schweitzer (D-MT) and former Congressman Pat Williams (D-MT) who is currently a Senior Fellow at the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Both panelists opening statements addressed concerns about the changing economy in the West. Schweitzer’s testimony put in perspective the concerns that many Westerners have regarding the balance between the old economy and environmental concerns. His opinion is that coal will not be an energy source of the future, unless a national cap-and-trade system is put in place. He also called for more money to improve carbon sequestering.

Williams took a very partisan tone saying that Republicans have lost touch with Western values and economic interests. He cited examples of how western states are less dependent on forestry, agriculture, and mining relative to 20 or 30 years ago. He believes that the Western economy is “healthier because of this economic diversity.”

During the question and answer portion of the hearing, Republican lawmakers stressed that the Western economy will not survive solely on technology and tourism. They called for reduced regulation on the use of Western land and industries that depend on that land. Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) added that the premise that the Western economy can transition from natural resource industries to newer economies “is somewhere between a gross over-simplification and just plain dead wrong.” He noted that if all the federally owned land was leased and then taxed at the lowest tax rate, $4 billion a year would be raised for the federal government. Money that he says could be used to fund education.

The second panel included five members: Russell Vaagen, Vice President, Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company; Clifford Lyle Marshall, Chairman, Hoopa Valley Tribe; Luther Propst, Executive Director, The Sonoran Institute; Matthew Box, Vice Chairman, Southern Ute Tribe and Dr. Bob Lee, Professor of Forest Resources, University of Washington.

The two tribal executives’ testimony focused on current federal government agreements with tribes regarding the extracting of minerals from beneath the surface and the timber business above the surface of their lands. Both men cited instances where the government did not come through on a promise or an agreement to adequately compensate the tribes for the use of their land. The two also called for more sovereignty and less federal regulation of tribal land because of past unsatisfactory dealings with both government and private corporations.

Dr. Bob Lee’s testimony highlighted problems that he felt the west would face as it moves away from a resource-based economy and into a more diverse economy with a diverse workforce from different parts of the country and the world. Specifically, he mentioned an attempt by the federal government in the 1990’s to decrease timber harvesting on Western lands and the adverse affect that these new policies had on many small Western communities. Currently, he sees a West that has many thriving communities that are based on imported wealth from people who relocated from other parts on the country. He also sees the opposite situation as many communities are struggling with a poor education system and drug problems similar to that of many major cities in the United States. He believes that the West is a ripe region for growth of alternative fuels such as biofuels and wind energy. However, he feels that the area lacks an adequate workforce to support advancement of these initiatives. He also sees the weak relationship between rural Western communities and the federal government as a major obstacle that needs to be overcome for the development of a healthy Western economy.

Russell Vaagen’s testimony dealt with forest health issues and what he perceives as poor government management of The National Forest Service. He believes too much of the Forest Service’s budget is focused on fighting fires as opposed to taking the steps to actually prevent them. He believes overcrowded forests are a major cause of fires and that more sawmill infrastructure needs to be established to help process the timber that is removed from crowded forests. Although he realizes that forestry is no longer the cornerstone of the economy in many of these rural Western communities, he believes that a healthy mix of old and new economy is needed to support long term economic growth.

Luther Propst’s testimony presented evidence that communities that are located near protected public lands are thriving. He believes this is due to economic diversification. Communities that are not dependent on a single economic activity can better adapt to fluctuations in global commodity prices unlike a town that is solely based on mineral extraction, agriculture or forestry. He also notes in his testimony that many communities are threatened by the booming growth because of the increased demand on resources such as water and the building of homes in wildfire corridors. He believes in a collaborative effort of local and federal government along with industry to support growth that retains the natural beauty and economic viability of the region.

Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV) said he believed that the hearing provided a positive message regarding the difficult relationship between economic development and conservation.
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