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Billed as an "excellent opportunity" for Arizona's citizens to learn about and contribute to the continuing debate on management of the state's sprawling national forests, the three-day conference at El Zaribah Shrine Auditorium includes more than a few country-club ideas on open communication.
The centerpiece of the conference, for example, is a touchy-feely, two-act play presented by a Seattle theatre group.
To reap the psychic benefits of the play, of course, conferees must first pay the summit's $95-per-person entrance fee.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, the summit has a list of sponsors that can be considered almost anything but low-budget. That list is dominated by companies that benefit from continued logging of national forests, including a firm that is under federal criminal investigation for allegedly stealing timber from federal lands. Notably missing from the list of sponsors are environmental organizations.
And while the event's program emphasizes the importance of wide-ranging dissemination of ideas, the conference is charging the media $45 per reporter to cover its proceedings.
Charlene Ledet, executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Environment, the state agency that organized the forum, says the high fees are needed to cover the event's costs. The commission, she says, has an annual budget of only $98,000, which must pay the salaries of three commission employees and rent for its office space.
Charles Babbitt, president of the Maricopa Audubon Society, has a less charitable explanation for the summit's exclusive luster.
"It's nothing more than a conference put on by the governor, at the behest of the timber industry, to just come up with some pro-timber-industry solutions," Babbitt says. "It's a scam."
The governor's summitry gets rolling with Timber, a two-act play put on by Seattle Public Theatre and designed to be a 90-minute exercise in attitude adjustment. The play, Ledet says, discusses timber issues from a variety of perspectives: those of the logger, the tourist, the businessman, the environmentalist and the nonaligned bystander.
"It dramatizes the different views by allowing the audience to relate to different perspectives without a specific connection," says Ledet.
Ledet's warm-and-fuzzy explanation of the play's message doesn't sit well with Jim Norton, director of the Wilderness Society's Southwest regional office, located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The play, along with the rest of the forum, is, in Norton's eyes, nothing more than a timber-industry attempt to equate the Southwest's timber problems with those of the Northwest.
"There are almost no similarities," Norton says.
The size and scope of the Northwest timber industry dwarf the Southwest's logging operations. Tens of thousands of loggers are affected in the Northwest by recent reductions in cutting. In Arizona, Norton says, there are only 1,200 logging and mill-related jobs.
Babbitt and Norton contend the speakers at the forum were selected to promote the status quo, which, they say, is leading to the final destruction of Arizona's remaining old-growth forest, 90 percent of which already has been logged.
"We will hear the same old stuff: that there are too many trees in the forest, we have to cut to keep the forest healthy, that Flagstaff is going to burn down and that we have to keep the mills open," says Babbitt, brother of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
While preparations for the pricey forest forum were under way, Babbitt and other environmentalists made ready for travel to Kaibab National Forest, in anticipation of a showdown with the U.S. Forest Service on a proposed timber sale north of Grand Canyon National Park.
The company expected to win the bid for the sale, dubbed the Paris allotment, is, oddly enough, Phoenix-based Kaibab Forest Products, one of the sponsors of the governor's Forestry Summit.
Kaibab is under criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix for an alleged theft of timber in Kaibab National Forest in the late 1980s. The company said the timber was cut by mistake.
Among the summit's other big-money, logging-related sponsors are Stone Container Corporation, which operates paper mills near Snowflake and in Reserve, New Mexico; Ponderosa Transport Inc.; Precision Pine & Timber Inc.; and Arizona Public Service Company.
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