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Williams, Rehberg spar over Western economy

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WASHINGTON - Whether the drilling, mining and timber industries are losing importance as the West's economy shifts to include more high-tech, tourism and outdoors business sparked a largely partisan debate Wednesday at a congressional hearing where three Montana officials testified.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Rep. Pat Williams were scheduled as the first witness panel at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the "Evolving West." But at the last minute, the committee added a witness panel made up of four Republican congressmen, including Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg.

The four Republicans said federal government policies have overregulated and unreasonably restricted the extractive industries such as oil, gas, timber and mining. They also lamented litigation that delays natural resources decisions.

Rehberg took issue with the stated purpose of the hearing: to focus on local efforts to combine sound resource conservation with robust economic development, and "to highlight the positive impact of these ongoing trends on the region."

He said the chasm between the old economy and the new economy has brought difficulties that must be addressed.

"If you want to change the economy in a state like Montana, you can't just turn your back on the old economy," he said after the hearing. "While there may be a desire on the part of some people to shut down the mills, no more mining, no more oil and gas, that's foolish."

Rehberg said the hearing topic seemed like an "either/or." " 'We didn't like the past, so we want to ignore the past and look to the future.' The problem is there's a transition period."

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said public lands issues have become mired in gridlock, litigation and divisiveness. He blamed the problems on inconsistent and contradictory laws, a well-funded environmental political industry, an indecisive Congress and an increasingly urban population in the East far removed from forest realities.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the hearing premise that resource industries can be replaced by tourism and high tech is somewhere between an oversimplification and wrong.

Williams said the Republicans had described "a West I don't recognize" and were talking about the region 20 years ago.

The West has undergone a significant transition "from that old extractive economy and culture to a new one based on conservation, restoration, high tech and services," he said. The region has never been more prosperous than today, he said, because of its diverse economy and "footloose jobs."

Timber and mining provide only 2 percent of jobs in Montana, Williams said.

While the aftermath of the transition remains "wrenching," Western states must embrace the change, he said. "Subdivisions have replaced some sawmills, but our economy is healthier due to this new economic diversity," he said.

Natural resources are responsible for growth in population and income in the West, he said. Workers no longer have to find jobs in oil fields or mines but rather want to live near parks, mountains and lakes.

"In the West, the new mantra might be: 'Don't build it and they will come,' " he said.

After the hearing, Williams said Republicans there haven't accepted the changing economy.

"You saw the two sides of the argument in here," he said. "One side saying, 'No no, the West is still the old West, it's still oil and gas and timber.' And the other side saying, 'Well, oil, gas and timber still have some relative importance out there, but the real economic value in the West is the diversity of the economy.' "

Schweitzer testified that correcting the environmental mistakes of the past is good business for Montana companies making new technology for restoring lands. He said many people are moving to Montana, drawn by safe communities, good schools and access to hunting, camping and fishing.

"We are changing our economy in the mountain West and it is good for business in the mountain West," he said.

He lauded wind power and biofuels. But he said oil, gas and coal production will continue and increase "on our own terms," meaning cleaner technologies can be used, the land can be reclaimed and communities can continue to prosper after production ends.

Upon hearing that Schweitzer has worked to attract oil and coal companies to Montana, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, invited him to become a Republican.

"I understand the Republicans have older whiskey and faster horses, but other than that, I think I'll just stay with the Democrats," Schweitzer responded.

On a third panel, American Indian leaders from California and Colorado talked about how they have worked to create balance between logging and drilling and protecting the environment. A lumber company official testified that sawmills can help thin forests and keep them healthy.

Timed to coincide with the hearing, a broad coalition of Western hunters, anglers, ranchers and conservationists on Wednesday released an outline of steps called the Western Energy Agenda that they want Congress to take to "return balance to oil and gas drilling on Western lands."

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