WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Interior Committee on Thursday urged passage of comprehensive legislation to protect the "ancient forests" of the Pacific Northwest and endangered species like the northern spotted owl that inhabit them.
But Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), the chairman, told a public lands subcommittee hearing that the process of passing such a bill will be lengthy because it involves "very sticky" environmental and economic issues.
Miller achieved an early victory later Thursday when his bill to protect old-growth forests, which he is co-sponsoring with subcommittee Chairman Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.) and others, was approved, 18 to 16, by the panel. It is being hailed as one of the most significant environmental measures to come before the 102nd Congress.
A similar measure to protect 6.8 million acres of virgin forests on federal lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California was approved earlier this week by the forestry subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee. This version, which allows more timber cutting than Miller's bill and generally is regarded as more sympathetic to industry concerns, must be reconciled with Miller's before the House votes.
Both bills provide for protection and enhancement of key watersheds and habitats for the spotted owl, sensitive fish species and other creatures in national forests and in U.S. Bureau of Land Management districts. In the Senate, a similar bill co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Brock Adams (D-Wash.) awaits action in the Agriculture Committee later this month.
Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.), chairman of the forestry subcommittee, called his bill "a good-faith attempt to get the process moving."
"The conflicts over resource management and allocation in the Pacific Northwest have reached the crisis stage," Volkmer said. "It is my belief that legislative action is needed now to come to grips with the matter."
Vento told his colleagues that the bill he is co-sponsoring with Miller not only protects the spotted owl and other species, but also "provides certainty and stability for the timber industry" by gradually reducing logging operations over a three-year period.
But Rep. Bob Smith (R-Ore.), who opposes the bill, said it "would create a great loss of jobs in the Northwest, perhaps 50,000 or more." And Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rockland) said that "many of these lumber mills, once they are closed, will never reopen."
Vento denied that the issue is "jobs versus the environment."
"The Pacific Northwest is a region in transition," he said. "Where once timber was a major element of its economy, today that economy has diversified in a dramatic way, reducing the importance of the timber industry as a source of jobs."
Advocates said the legislation also authorizes "a broad-based economic diversification and assistance program" for timber-dependent communities in the Pacific Northwest.