By Jayson Jacoby
If environmental groups file suit to stop a proposed timber sale in eastern Baker County, they might have company in the courtroom.
But on the opposite side of the aisle.
"If that happens (a suit is filed), I personally want to be there when they make a case before a judge," said Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners.
The potential legal intrigue has to do with the Snow Basin project on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Forest officials announced this month that later this summer they intend to offer to mills the first of five proposed timber sales.
The Snow Basin project covers about 28,500 acres in the southern Wallowa Mountains.
The five timber sales could bring between 35 million board-feet and 50 million board-feet of timber to sawmills.
The Wallowa-Whitman hasn't sold as much as 50 million board-feet in a single year for almost two decades.
Some environmental groups have criticized aspects of the project, in particular the Wallowa-Whitman's plan to cut mature trees on 691 acres of old growth forest.
David Mildrexler, ecosystem conservation coordinator for the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, said last week that the group, based in La Grande, is "looking at our options," one of which would be to challenge Snow Basin in court.
If that happens, Warner said, Baker County would seek intervenor status in the lawsuit.
Warner said the county, if granted intervenor status by a judge, would argue that delaying logging would harm the local economy, since the timber sale is projected to create jobs in the timber industry.
Karen Spencer, the county's parks and recreation director, said the county also wants the Wallowa-Whitman to cut more trees infected with mistletoe, a parasitic plant.
"Snow Basin doesn't call for enough cutting," Spencer said.
That said, county officials would prefer the version of Snow Basin that the Wallowa-Whitman has proposed to a postponement, or cancellation, of the project altogether.
Nor is the county alone in vowing to support the Snow Basin project should it be legally challenged.
Arvid Andersen, a private forestry consultant from Baker City, said he too would seek intervenor status if opponents sue to prevent logging.
Andersen said that although he doesn't think the Wallowa-Whitman is proposing to cut enough trees to reduce the risk of insect infestations, disease and fire in the Snow Basin forests, he credits forest officials with forging a balance between environmental groups and the timber industry.
"The Wallowa-Whitman did an outstanding job of trying to listen to all parties," Andersen said. "It's typical of the environmentalists to obstruct and try to trip up the Forest Service."
Mildrexler said he believes those 691 disputed acres should be off-limits to logging so as to protect the older trees that certain species rely on.
But Andersen contends that the greater danger is from wildfires, and that fires would be more likely if those forests aren't thinned.
He calls Snow Basin "a real win-win for the community and the forest ecosystem."