THE Pacific Northwest and western Canada may come to be known as the economic "nation" of Cascadia if some enterprising United States and Canadian visionaries have their way - and that dream is slowly becoming a reality.
"We're not talking about political union here," says Charles Kelly, publisher of The New Pacific magazine and a resident of Vancouver, B.C.
"We both have capitals 3,000 miles away that don't really consider our interests as a priority," Mr. Kelly says.
"Rather than fighting the battles of the bankers in New York and Toronto and the politicians in Washington and Ottawa why don't we just band together and figure out ways that we can more effectively compete internationally and build a better society among ourselves?"
The implications of such a unified Cascadia - named after the Northwest's stately mountain range and Columbia River waterfalls - seems daunting. The territory encompasses Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, which represents an area that is more than one-third the size of the entire European continent. It also boasts a population that rivals those of Norway, Sweden, and Finland combined.
In addition, the region is recognized for its international air and shipping ports, eight major universities, its role as a timber and produce exporter to Asia, and large concentration of software, biotechnology and aerospace industries that attract new residents and investments.
With a combined gross do-mestic product of more than $250 million, Cascadia would rank as the world's 10th-largest economy.
Jack Austin, Canadian member of parliament representing British Columbia, writes: "Put simply, Cascadians realize that as separate units they lack market size; they lack the capacity and range to develop their own comparative advantage; and, they pay too high a price for their separate learning curves in research, analysis, administration, and education."
"From early on, people recognized that the area constituted a region unto itself," says Robert Saltvig, a Pacific Northwest historian at Seattle University. "The natural resources were similar, the maritime industries, the reality of mineral deposits in the mountains, the possibility of agriculture in the interior.
"The natural boundaries that form the region don't divide it the way the political boundaries do," Mr. Saltvig says. Early borders shifted
The territory's original borders periodically shifted under alternating control by the Hudson's Bay Company, Britain, Canada, and the United States. But it has remained distinct through modern times. More recently, some political leaders and "ecocultural" groups have called for a redistribution of Northwest borders to reflect the region's singularity.
Interest in the Cascadian union gained momentum after the signing of the 1988 US-Canada Free Trade Agreement. "It's amazing how much it's picked up in the private sector," says Paul Schell, a Cascadia advocate and Port of Seattle commissioner.
Mr. Schell and other Cascadia advocates say the days of national economies are numbered. They point to the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and decentralization of other nations as evidence that the "new regionalism" is here to stay.
"We can do a better job of managing our resources at a Cascadia level," Schell says. "The message to nation states is that we hope you guys don't get us involved in a war - but, beyond that, you're irrelevant."
In response to this new perspective, Cascadia proponents have launched a series of bold agendas including:
* Meetings to find common solutions to timber, fishing, and other environmental problems.
* Promotion of "two-nation vacations" as part of a joint marketing strategy.
* Opening of US banks and law firms in Canada to establish links with Asian investment there.
* Sharing of business directories and research databases to promote networking.
* Workshops on differing US and Canadian trade regulations.
* Proposals for a regional arts festival, shared symphony orchestra, linking of college libraries, and a Cascadian major-league baseball team.
* Efforts to link Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland by high-speed train while preserving the urban corridor's quality of life.
"We're trying to prevent "Bos-Wash,' " says Washington Rep. John Miller (R), a proponent of corridor development, in reference to congestion between Boston and Washington, D.C. "We want to see our area grow in a dynamic, constructive way that preserves the amenities we have. Canada and the US have a relationship on which to build something like this."
Nevertheless, support for Cascadia is not unanimous. In Canada, separatist movements remind some officials of Quebec's bid for secession: and the "new regionalism" gives a few British Columbians nightmares about invading US hordes. Oregonians wary
Meanwhile, some Oregonians are concerned that a Cascadian alliance will obscure their doggedly individual identity. Others say public policies are best handled at more localized levels.
"There are a lot of areas where states have to, and will, retain their jurisdiction over certain activities," says Terry Morlan, a hydroelectric manager with the Portland-based Northwest Power Planning Council.
"That doesn't mean there aren't benefits for cooperation. But I think it would be a long time before we came to a state of Cascadia," he adds.
Proponents insist that individual sovereignty and regional affiliation can exist side by side.
"Governors will still be governors and states will still tax and regulate," says David Harrison, executive director of the Northwest Policy Center in Seattle. "What Cascadia is built on is a doctrine of the value of shared circumstances - that if you start figuring out what you can learn from across state and provincial lines, you don't have to reinvent the wheel every time you put your shoulder to the cart.