CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – Congress should help bring cell phone and high speed Internet service to rural communities across northern New England and New York as part of a wide-ranging plan to improve the area’s weak economy, a study recommended Wednesday.

“In practical terms, we want cell phones and Internet service to work as well in the Northern Forest as they do in Boston or New York City,” members of the Northern Forest Sustainable Economy Initiative said in a report to governors, policy makers and business and community leaders in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.

Without the improvements, economic development options are “difficult, if not impossible to consider,” the group said in a report.

The 60-member committee was appointed by the governors of the four states, in conjunction with the Concord-based Northern Forest Center and the North Country Council of New Hampshire.

The authors called the report the first four-state strategy for sustainable economic development in the 30-million-acre Northern Forest, which is home to more than 2 million people.

Long-term goals include working over state lines to maintain the forests that brought communities and jobs to the region in the first place; coordinating marketing of businesses, including tourism; encouraging residents and government to buy locally made products and services; improving communications and transportation; and harnessing renewable energy.

“The greatest opportunity for Northern Forest communities to regain economic success in a global marketplace is to band together to solve common problems,” said committee member Bob Thompson of Maine’s Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments

The group says the area is in transition from an economy dominated by large corporations, including lumber and paper companies, to a future where economic development will be led by smaller businesses trying to compete around the world.

“Our communities are mostly rural, and they’re facing the same challenges trying to be competitive in a global marketplace whether they’re in Maine or New York,” said Terry Martino of the Adirondack North Country Association.

Asking Congress to help improve communications is a top recommendation because major portions of the region do not have cell phone coverage or affordable, reliable high-speed Internet access.

Other recommendations include:

– Fostering new businesses that maintain and enhance the area’s assets, especially the forest.

– Restoring east-west freight train lines within two years and exploring passenger service to southern New England and New York.

– Protecting the forest environment and ecology, including maintaining and seeking new federal funding for various programs.

– Setting up a coordinated organization to help advocate for and implement the recommendations in all four states.

“We want the businesses and employees of the region to share the pride – and the financial rewards – of meeting the growing worldwide demand for high-quality ‘green’ products. We want the region to benefit from meeting more of its energy needs with sustainable local resources,” the committee wrote.

The forest stretches 400 miles, from New York’s Tug Hill Plateau and Adirondack Mountains, to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and Green Mountains, New Hampshire’s North Country and White Mountains and Maine’s Western Mountains and Down East lakes.

The committee recognizes the region as a special place, and said its recommendations are designed to keep it that way.

“Our region has unique opportunities because of the quality of our natural resources, and the Sustainable Economy Initiative strategy recognizes that we must maintain those resources to succeed,” said Kay Henry of the Vermont-based Northern Forest Canoe Trail.

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AP-ES-10-08-08 1629EDT

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