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Sustainability could lead to better economic clime

Conference last week showed Oregon may see some interesting collaborative efforts

As Oregon seeks to excel in the 21st-century economy, it can find new value and success in an asset that once might have been considered a deterrent to growth - this state's reputation for favoring environmentally sustainable practices.

The idea that jobs and a profitable economy can flow from Oregon's green inclinations hasn't always been a mainstream concept.

Too often, business goals have appeared at odds with environmental values expressed by many Oregonians. But this perceived conflict between business and the environment, while not fully resolved, in the past year has quickly given way to the realization that collaboration between environmental and economic practices really can work.

Nowhere was this new cooperative mood more evident than last Thursday at the Oregon Business Plan's fifth annual Leadership Summit in Portland - an event that drew close to 1,000 business, community and political leaders from throughout Oregon to help set the state's economic course.

The summit's theme - Gaining Sustainable Advantage - demonstrated that business and political leaders agree sustainability is an economic niche well-suited to Oregon. Innovators in this state already are exploring such business opportunities with their minds wide open.

It was remarkable, for example, to see the head of one of Oregon's largest forest-product companies sit on a panel with a representative of the Nature Conservancy and discuss using 'woody biomass' from forests as a fuel to create power.

Their willingness to collaborate was a welcome departure from past adversarial relationships that separated environmental and business interests.

It's time such relationships change, because the world is changing. People are increasingly concerned about global warming, dependence on foreign oil and rapid consumption of the Earth's resources.

Oregon is in a unique position to be an economic and environmental leader as other states and nations search for solutions to these problems.

Oregon already has specific initiatives to pursue that are related to the broader concept of sustainability. Here are three examples of ways that Oregon can advance its economic and environmental agenda:

* Producing biofuels from Oregon commodities.

Portland city Commissioner Randy Leonard deserves great credit for linking Portland's appetite for cleaner, renewable fuel to agriculture, the economic engine of rural Oregon.

Leonard has discussed his concepts with Eastern Oregon's agricultural community, which has the potential to produce crops - including trees - that could be converted to fuel. But the first step toward that goal must be for the Legislature to invest research dollars in developing a process for deriving fuel from crops actually grown in Oregon.

* Converting ocean wave energy into electricity.

Again, the key to success in the waves-to-watts project is to continue supporting research to make the concept commercially viable.

* Recognizing that Oregon's forests are a renewable resource.

Wise forestry management, environmental stewardship and careful extraction of timber can coexist with preservation of species and the opportunity to grow new, carbon dioxide-consuming trees.

These three initiatives are just a sample of Oregon's opportunities. To maintain its edge in this emerging economic sector, Oregon also must live up to its reputation for sustainability.

Much of Oregon's image is due to landmark achievements of the past - the beach bill, the bottle bill and statewide land-use planning.

Leaders of today now have a chance to build - not rest - on those accomplishments.