Investor to Back Another Forest Protection Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hal Arbit, the millionaire investor who sank over $5 million into an unsuccessful campaign to pass a forest protection initiative last year, has pledged to use his personal funds to back a similar measure that is being prepared for the 1992 ballot, his political allies said Wednesday.

Environmentalists said both Arbit and Frank Wells, president of Walt Disney Studios, promised to provide the start-up money--about $500,000--necessary for signature-gathering efforts with the understanding that more would come when a campaign gets under way. The initiative's backers estimate they will need about 625,000 signatures by early December to ensure that the measure qualifies for the June, 1992, ballot.

"Arbit and Wells are interviewing campaign managers right now. They are committed to an initiative," said Warner Chabot, a consultant for the Forest and Wildlife Protection Committee, the group that is pushing the measure and whose membership includes the two executives.

Chabot said Arbit had not made any commitments of financial support earlier because he hoped the Legislature would settle the issue of forest protection by passing a bill that would place tough new restrictions on timber harvesting on private lands. While the Legislature did approve a measure that "satisfied" Arbit, Gov. Pete Wilson has said he will veto it.

Chabot said the environmental initiative is much stronger than either the governor's plan or the legislative proposal, which was largely the result of a compromise hammered out by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups and Sierra Pacific Industries, the state's largest owner of private timberlands.

He said it puts much stiffer restrictions on clear-cutting and more severe limitations on the harvesting of ancient forests. He said it also provides stronger protections for wildlife and prohibits logging within 100 feet of major streams to ensure protection of watersheds.

The pledge of funds for an initiative was viewed by some involved in political battles over forest protection as an attempt to pressure the governor to change his mind about a veto. Timber industry officials, however, said they were gearing up for a campaign to fight the initiative.

"I have to say we've taken the threat of an initiative very seriously all along. We felt they were ready and prepared to go ahead," said Maureen Frisch, public affairs manager for Simpson Paper Co.

Frisch said that the industry hired a campaign manager months ago and began developing strategy in anticipation of another initiative battle.

Last year the two sides spent more than $17 million in a bitter struggle over forest protection measures. When environmentalists proposed an initiative that would severely restrict timber harvesting, the industry countered with its own initiative that was much less restrictive. Both measures were defeated, the industry measure by a wide margin and the environmentalists' by a narrow one.

Frisch said the industry would not have time this year to qualify its own initiative and would try instead to win legislative approval of a forest protection bill backed by Wilson.

"We fully support the governor's proposal," said Frisch. "It's a very tough compromise. There's a lot of pain in it for us."

But environmentalists argue that the governor's proposal, unveiled late last week, is not tough enough and would not adequately protect the state's privately owned forests from over-harvesting.

Chabot said environmentalists believe the new initiative has a much better chance of passing than the 1990 initiative because it does not include provisions for a bond issue. The 1990 initiative provided for bonds to purchase ancient forests.

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