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Tuesday, February 27 2007
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Congress puts focus on West's evolution
By NOELLE STRAUB of the Missoulian D.C. Bureau

WASHINGTON - Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Rep. Pat Williams will testify this week at a congressional hearing on the “evolving West,” highlighting the region's economic transformation and efforts to balance growth with the preservation of public lands and resources.

The committee's chairman said the oversight hearing marks “just the beginning” of a congressional effort to examine Western natural resource issues and listen to new perspectives from the region.

The Montana Democrats will lead off the House Natural Resources Committee hearing as the only two witnesses at its first panel on Wednesday. They will be followed by a second panel that includes American Indian leaders, researchers and a lumber company official.

“There is no question but that the economic transformation in the West is historic,” Williams said in a recent interview. “The West has now moved from an extractive economy to a conservation, restoration and service economy. And service does not mean hamburger flippers. It means health care workers and architects (and others).”

Williams, who is helping found a new group to work on Western issues, said the area is the fastest-growing region in America demographically and “now has a footloose economy.”

“The old economy was based around timber, gold, silver, oil and gas and copper, and workers had to go where those resources were,” he said. “Today's economy is that people move not to jobs, but to natural amenities such as mountains, near wilderness areas, lakes and rivers. And then the jobs follow the people. The Internet, the PC is one of the reasons it works that way.”

Williams said Congress has been ignoring the changes in the West and needs to start addressing some of the issues that have arisen.

“They need to get balance in the natural resources extraction industries, particularly methane gas,” he said. “We need innovative solutions to the overcrowding of our national parks. We need humane, rational immigration policies for the Southwest. Just to name three (issues).”

Williams, who served nine terms in the House, now works with the University of Montana's Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula. He recently helped found an organization called Western Progress, with offices in Phoenix, Denver and Missoula.

Western Progress is a public policy advocacy group that will hold its first conference in Phoenix in May on the economic benefits to the West of wind and solar energy, he said.

Like the new congressional interest, Williams' two groups “are indicative of the efforts to understand and guide the new West,” he said.

“Governor Schweitzer and I are both pleased and relieved that Congress is truly asking questions about the West and then listening hard for answers,” he said.

Williams said the committee may call a series of hearings on the topic, possibly holding some in the West.

“I think what they're trying to do is better understand the significant transitions that are under way in the Rocky Mountain West so that they can apply appropriate legislative solutions and assistance,” Williams said.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, pledged a new focus on the region.

“When it comes to natural resources issues before the Congress, in some circles the West has continued to be portrayed as a place predominantly frequented by the miner with pick and shovel, and the lone cowboy on the range,” Rahall said in a statement.

“This hearing is just the beginning in the committee's commitment to bringing in new voices that we have not heard from in recent years and looking at issues affecting the natural resources of the Western states from a different perspective,” he added.

The hearing will highlight the impact of the West's “dramatic transformation in recent years as a result of local efforts to combine sound resource conservation with robust economic development,” a committee statement said.

Topics will include economic growth as it relates to the preservation of public lands, protection of clean water resources, energy production, the contributions of American Indian communities and technological advancements in the West, it said.

Other witnesses include Clifford Lyle Marshall, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe; Matthew Box, vice chairman of the Southern Ute Tribe; Luther Propst, executive director of The Sonoran Institute; Russell Vaagen, vice president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co.; and Bob Lee, forest resources professor at the University of Washington.

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