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Looking to the future, minus the haze

We think the views around Baker County are pretty stunning now, but Oregon officials contend the vistas ought to be clearer.

Well, we won’t complain if that happens.

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality believes it can happen.

The DEQ recently wrote a report that calls for cutting airborne pollution by 80 percent in the next decade at Portland General Electric’s coal-fired power plant in Boardman.

That, combined with a reduction in emissions as cleaner cars replace less-efficient models, could rid parts of Oregon of the unhealthy haze that casts a pall across the horizon.

We could notice a difference within 10 years at places such as Hells Canyon and the Columbia River Gorge, according to DEQ.

The agency’s longer-term goal is much more ambitious, though.

That goal is to eliminate manmade haze by 2065.

Merkley’s rhetoric

Sen. Gordon Smith’s campaign ads accusing Jeff Merkley of ignoring rural Oregon weren’t persuasive enough to win Smith another term.

But the spots seem to have gotten Merkley’s attention.

Merkley, the Democratic Senator-elect who will replace Smith next month, told The Associated Press last week that he will advocate for two issues crucial to rural regions.

First, Merkley said he will draft legislation to continue the “county payments” program.

That program, which Ron Wyden, Merkley’s soon-to-be senatorial colleague, helped to create eight years ago, supplies about half of Baker County’s Road Department budget.

Second, Merkley told a reporter that he wants the federal government to increase logging in publicly owned second-growth forests to sustain what’s left of the timber industry and to reduce the risk of wildfires.

Congress’ compromise on the Big 3 bailout

Congress has crafted a fair compromise in its effort to help two of America’s Big 3 automakers, General Motors and Chrysler, weather an unprecedented slump in sales.

The $15 billion loan package that lawmakers could vote on as soon as today would protect those two vital cogs in the country’s economy, and the millions of workers whose jobs depend on them.

We’re glad, though, that the dollars would have attached to them about as many strings as a piano.

For instance, the president will appoint a “car czar” who will, in essence, supervise wholesale changes in how GM and Chrysler do business.

And this car czar will have the authority to cut the federal pursestrings if the automakers botch the job, and even to force the companies to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That would save the companies but require them to restructure.

Good and bad in governor’s budget

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s proposal to raise taxes during the current recession has prompted predictable criticism, some of which we second.

Some, but not all.

For instance, we support the governor’s plan to boost the state gas tax by 2 cents per gallon to raise money to repair roads and replace bridges.

That modest increase will create thousands of construction jobs — and creating jobs is precisely what Oregon, with its rising unemployment rate, needs.

We also endorse Kulongoski’s proposed 60-cents-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, and a 25-percent boost in taxes on other tobacco products.

The extra money would pay for health insurance for thousands of children.

Recruiting ramblers

Comparing Northeastern Oregon to, say, Switzerland is not as outlandish as it might seem.

For decades now various writers have described the Wallowa Mountains as “America’s Alps” or something similar.

Such associations are apt, based on scenery and, in some cases, on geology.

Our mountains could hardly be more different from the Alps, though, in the ways hikers travel through them.

A group of Baker City residents wants to change that.

The group, led by Don Chance, who’s the city’s planning director; Economic Developer Gene Stackle and retired teacher Dick Hentze, believes our region can attract “ramblers.”

Those are hikers who prefer the Alpine style — staying each night in a hut or other building, and carrying a small pack with a lunch and basic essentials.

Reasonable On Roads

Before we get into the heart of the dispute over Baker County’s proposed rules for rural driveways and private roads, let’s dispense with at least with one thing.

No one, including people who have criticized the proposed rules, wants to imperil Baker County’s 216 volunteer firefighters.

This is not an either/or situation. We needn’t choose between saving money and saving lives.

The real issue here is whether the proposed road standards strike a reasonable balance between preserving property owners’ rights, and ensuring that firefighters and other emergency workers can get to those properties when they’re summoned.

People who choose to live outside town know that in an emergency they will have to wait longer for fire trucks and ambulances to arrive.

Making room for canyon campground

Hells Canyon has long been one of Baker County’s main tourist attractions, but the views down there are much more abundant than the amenities are.

A Colorado company hopes to change that ratio.

We applaud the Baker County Commissioners for approving on Wednesday Western Land Management’s request to change the zoning on its 76-acre property. That change paves the way for the company to build an RV park on its parcel beside Hells Canyon Reservoir, about four miles north of Oxbow.

The county planning commission endorsed the company’s plans last month.

Western Land Management wants to construct 10 cabins and create campsites for 25 RVs and 25 tents.

The right decision

Baker County’s three commissioners made a difficult decision last week when they appointed 11 people to serve on the county’s Mental Health advisory committee.

But we believe it was the right decision.

The controversial part was commissioners’ decision to not re-appoint two incumbent members, chairman Gary Dielman and secretary Ed Moses.

Both Dielman and Moses have publicly criticized commissioners for failing to scrutinize Mountain Valley Mental Health (MVMH), the private contractor the county hires under a million-dollar contract to serve clients with mental health problems.

Many of those criticisms were valid.

State regulators cited more than a dozen deficiencies at MVMH in 2006.

Big future for little wood products

The foundation of Northeastern Oregon’s timber industry used to be the biggest things in the woods: old growth ponderosa pines.

Yellow bellies, they’re sometimes called.

The future of that ailing industry, by contrast, might well depend on a lot of little things that loggers used to pile and burn, if they bothered to do anything with the stuff.

“Slash” is the traditional term for skinny trees, limbs, needles and debris, but nowadays you’ll more often hear about “biomass.”

Members from Baker County’s Small Woodlands Association talked during a recent meeting about using biomass as the basis for an industry that could include a power plant and a wood pellet mill.

Harvesting biomass can also lead to healthier forests where trees grow faster and are less susceptible to insects, disease and fires.

Those prospects are exciting, and could create a new source of income for private forest owners.

But this is not a turnkey operation waiting for someone to twist it into profit-making life.

Thankful by the tankful

Remember those torpid days in July and August, when you shivered despite the heat whenever you drove past a gas station and your gaze, almost against your will, fell on the price display?

We do, too.

And we’re awfully thankful that the sight of those signs isn’t nearly so sinister as it was four months ago.

In fact we’ve been tempted to take a drive just to see if the local stations have shaved another dime.

Except we don’t want to waste gas — not even gas that goes for little more than two bucks a gallon.

We mention gas prices because the money we pump into our tanks is real money.

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