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Beauty Fuels Growth Spurt in Northwest

Economists quantify the payoff from region's spectacular scenery

IN the Pacific Northwest, they say you get two paychecks: one from your employer, the other anytime you take a walk, go for a drive, or just look out the window at the spectacular scenery.

Now there is solid evidence that the attractive landscape goes beyond aesthetics and emotional uplift to provide benefits measured more tangibly in dollars and cents.

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Economic growth in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana is two to three times the national average, according to a new report by a group of economic experts, and this is primarily due to ''quality-of-life'' factors.

''It is clear that many economists throughout the region strongly believe that environmental health is a major stimulus for, indeed, is a prerequisite for, a healthy economy,'' says Thomas Power, head of the economics department at the University of Montana, Missoula. Dr. Power is lead author of a report endorsed by 34 university and consulting economists, titled ''Economic Well-Being and Environmental Protection in the Pacific Northwest.''

The economic numbers here tell a story to be envied by other regions. Between 1988 and 1994, employment grew 18 percent (nearly 1 million jobs, or 2.4 times the national average), personal income climbed 24 percent (more than twice that in the US as a whole), and real earnings jumped 23.8 percent (nearly three times the national figure).

Although that superior economic performance is leveling off, the forecast is for more above-average growth in employment and real income, according to state economists. This, despite declines in forest products and aerospace, the region's historical economic centerpieces.

High tech - and not just the Redmond, Wash., giant, Microsoft Corp. - is a major player here as the ''silicon forest'' sprouts new facilities in places such as southern Idaho and Oregon's Willamette Valley.

''Robust expansion of the software industry and major plant investments in chip fabrication and related industries virtually guarantee double-digit growth rates in the near future,'' says ''The 1996 Portrait,'' a regional economic profile by the Portland, Ore.-based US Bancorp and the University of Washington in Seattle.

Successful development is breeding more growth: A diversified economy draws workers and their families from other regions, and this increase in population (twice the national rate) attracts investment, new businesses, and expansion among existing firms.

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Still, there are pockets of high unemployment and poverty in communities dependent on forests and other natural resources - which is why some politicians here have been leading the fights to change the Endangered Species Act and allow ''salvage'' logging on national forests. And the issues of environmental protection and its impact on an economy shifting away from natural-resource dependence are central to several other recent legal and political developments. Among these:

r A US Supreme Court decision this week upholding protection for the threatened northern spotted owl.

r A meeting in Seattle last week of the region's governors to discuss hydropower and protection for dwindling salmon stocks in the Columbia River Basin.

r Efforts by US Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana to cut the federal program reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park and other parts of Idaho and Montana - a program that delights tourists. Tourism now generates more income in the region than does ranching. But ranchers see the wolf as a threat to livestock.

r The tussle between environmentalists and a Canadian company planning a large gold mine just outside Yellowstone.

r The neck-and-neck race to fill the vacated US Senate seat of Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon. Here, the impact of environmental protection on the future of loggers, millworkers, miners, commercial fishermen, and others has become a key campaign issue in the contest between US Rep. Ron Wyden (D) and state Senate President Gordon Smith (R).

Mr. Smith is more inclined than his Democratic opponent to lift some federal environmental restrictions, require compensation when private property is impacted by government regulation, and loosen Oregon's statewide land-use plan. The League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, meanwhile, are putting money and manpower into Mr. Wyden's campaign.

THE latest economic report is likely to bolster the arguments of environmentalists in the region. The ''jobs-versus-environment'' rhetoric that has raged here since the spotted owl was listed as ''threatened'' in 1990 is really a phony one, asserts the latest regional economic report.

The report doesn't lightly dismiss the loss of about 25,000 timber jobs in recent years. But it says the losses have more to do with new labor-saving equipment and log exports than with environmental restrictions. In any case, those and other losses have been more than made up in other areas. Washington State lost 4,900 timber jobs, but gained 15,000 jobs in the software industry. Idaho gained four times as many jobs in high-tech businesses than it lost in mining.

A recent round of worker cutbacks at the Boeing Corporation in Seattle has not had the impact of earlier layoffs in the late '70s when the regional economy went into a slump. At the time, a plaintive sign on the outskirts of Seattle exhorted the last person leaving to ''please turn out the lights.''

Resiliency and diversity are the important lessons here, says Power. He underscores that a natural environment ''is one of the driving forces behind the growth in jobs, incomes, and industrial diversification.''

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