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Smith: Resources can rescue state economy

Senator favors opening Northwest's public forests to more harvests

The way U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith sees it, the best hope for Oregon's flailing economy is a return to the basics: fishing, forests and farms.

Smith, the 51-year-old Republican from Pendleton who earned a seat on the powerful Finance Committee in just his second term in the U.S. Senate, visited the offices of the Tribune last week, displaying the calm demeanor and independent streak for which he is well-known. He spoke about numerous issues but said his top priority is rebuilding the state's economy.

The latest figures from the Oregon Employment Department show a state unemployment rate of 8.2 percent, compared with a national rate of 6.1 percent. The recent bankruptcy of Portland-based Crown Pacific was the latest blow to the state's once-mighty timber industry.

Smith said he is embarrassed by the thrashing that Oregon's image has taken for its lack of jobs and inability to fund its schools. He blamed the state's downfall on the loss of a natural resource economy, which in his view was dismantled in the 1990s 'through government policy.'

The belief that a 'new' economy would make irrelevant the 'old' one that has long funded Oregon's public schools was wrong, Smith argued.

'Underpinning all of that was the belief that you could turn value out of blue sky,' he said, 'that you could have value without producing something. You can't.'

Smith supports the Bush administration's Healthy Forest Initiative, which seeks to decrease forest fire risks through increased harvests. Many environmental groups oppose the policy, but Smith argued that it will 'allow us to clean up some of the overgrowth of our forests and turn on some mills. And stop some communities from going up in flames.'

Smith said he advocates cutting a billion board feet of timber each year on public lands in Oregon and Washington. That would represent about a fivefold increase.

'All the experts said that's a sustainable yield,' Smith said. 'Think of how many mills you could turn on with that. Think of how many communities could have family jobs again.'

Jay Ward, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, dismissed Smith's economic ideas as a 'return to the 19th century.'

'Mining 500 years of old-growth forest in 50 years is what has driven the timber industry into the ground,' Ward said. 'Timber will never be the economic engine that it was in the days of big timber. We should stop trying to go back to that, because that time was not without costs.

'We are now shouldering those costs,' he said, 'in terms of endangered species, water quality and the instability of our mountain slopes.'

On the same day that Smith spoke of the importance of rebuilding the state's timber economy, the resources council and other Portland environmental groups staged a '21 chain saw salute' at U.S. Forest Service headquarters on Southwest First Avenue to protest the Bush administration's more lenient policies toward logging in roadless wilderness areas.

The protest did not specifically target Smith., who has gained unusually high support in the overwhelmingly Democratic Portland area. He also has played a pivotal role in several key environmental efforts, including protection for the Bull Run Watershed, which is the primary source of Portland's drinking water.

Smith seemed unworried about opposition in liberal Portland.

'I'm telling you the facts of life as to how you fund a government,' he said. 'You go to the state Capitol, and you look at the carpeting in the Senate and the motif is a stalk of wheat and a jumping fish. You go in the House, and it's a Douglas fir tree. That's what built Oregon, and we still need those things.'