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Sustainable Growth Starts at Grass Roots

THE Clinton administration's one-day forest blast in Oregon last Friday started out to be a "summit" but was renamed a "conference" in order to lower expectations. You don't bring together hundreds of interested parties on subjects as complex as ecological protection and economic well-being (not to mention political reality) and hope to walk away with solid solutions in a short time.

That was one of the lessons of the Earth Summit in Brazil last summer. In fact, the Portland gathering is almost a perfect regional example of what the United Nations meeting of 178 countries was all about: balancing environment and development in a way that is sustainable.

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What the president and his staff need to do now is look for the best ideas that have been developing at the local level, then encourage and nurture those ideas so that a trend and eventually a full-blown federal policy emerge. Here are three good places to start:

* The 89,000-acre Hoopa Valley Indian reservation in northern California contains 30,000 acres of old-growth forest - home to many wild species including 40 pairs of the controversial northern spotted owl. These species are important to the culture of the tribe, as well as being biologically significant. But logging is one of the few economic bases in an area where seasonal unemployment can reach 70 percent.

For the past year, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been quietly working with tribal leaders to develop what's called an "Integrated Resource Management Plan" designed to promote economic sustainability, protect biological diversity, preserve traditional cultural values, and enhance the tribe's self-governance. The conservation partnership also has involved the San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric utility, which financially supported the planting of 27,000 trees on the reservation.

When the management plan is completed, the tribe - with WWF's help - will begin developing means of economic diversification. These could include forest specialty products, a processing mill to add value to logs otherwise taken off the reservation (in some cases shipped overseas), and tourism. It will take some outside help, but the results can benefit both "owls and people."

* In another part of northern California - near Mt. Lassen - the Collins Pine Company is managing a productive 92,000-acre tract that is a model of sustainable forestry. This was recently the subject of a unique study developed by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), an Oakland-based company that specializes in independently checking corporate environmental claims.

The SCS evaluation team included a forester, a conservationist, and a biologist, who used a research and indexing system to rank the Collins Almador Forest in the top 20 percent in three categories: timber resource sustainability, forest ecosystem maintenance, and socioeconomic benefits to the community. "Collins's commitment to focusing on the quality of what remains after logging rather than simply the quantity of timber removed has impressed the team members," SCS reported. This kind of holistic appro ach to forest stewardship will prevent future spotted owl "train wrecks," as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls them.

* In southern Oregon, a project called the Applegate Partnership was launched last year by a group of local environmentalists, timber-industry representatives, and federal-land-agency officials who work at ground level. Their aim is to manage the 500,000-acre Applegate River watershed on an ecosystem basis, involving all parties from the start in dealing with the impact of past logging, fire suppression, and drought. They have been meeting quietly, without press or politicians to stir things up. They don 't agree on everything, but trust is beginning to build among people who rarely communicated in the past.

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"We needed to sit down and talk like this for a long time," Dwain Cross, owner of a logging company, told a local newspaper. Su Rolle, United States Forest Service district ranger and another "partnership" member, described "a sense of hope and excitement here with diverse people coming together with a common vision."

Secretary Babbitt dropped in the other day and pronounced it "a tremendously important experiment." As usual, the best ideas tend to come from the grass roots. The work now is to find and encourage more such successes.

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