Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Our optimism about a new effort to avoid legal tussles over national forest management, and thus bring more logs to Northeastern Oregon's sawmills, is optimism of the decidedly cautious variety.

The collaborative approach in place on the Umatilla National Forest, and in the fledgling stage on the Wallowa-Whitman, has the potential to aid the ailing timber economy.

In theory it's better for people with disparate opinions about how to manage public forests to get together before a timber sale is approved, and try to forge a compromise that results in trees being cut, than to wait until the sale is finalized only to see appeals and lawsuits keep those same trees standing for years.

Still and all, we're skeptical that the collaborative approach will result in a substantial increase in timber-cutting on national forests in Northeastern Oregon.

Based on the published comments of people involved in collaboration, the timber sales likely to meet muster with environmental groups closely resemble the sales the Wallowa-Whitman has been putting up, without consistent opposition, for the past 20 years.

Usually described as "commercial thinning," these sales, since they generally allow loggers to cut only small-diameter trees, don't produce enough timber to enable mill owners to hire a lot more workers.

And in Baker County, these sales weren't sufficient to prevent the only remaining mill from closing in 1996.

In the rare cases when the Forest Service proposes to cut older, bigger trees - which could result in a significant increase in the amount of timber for mills - environmental groups have objected. The Snow Basin project in eastern Baker County is a current example.

Collaboration might lead to a modest increase in the number of commercial thinning sales - a boon for overcrowded forests vulnerable to insects and fire.

But we doubt the process will truly invigorate the timber industry.