February 24, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Seven permanent jobs and uncounted research opportunities will be lost in Union County under the Bush Administrations budget proposal to end most of the work in the Starkey Experimental Forest.

Tom Mills, director of the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland, said Friday that the elk, deer and cattle research at Starkey will end if the presidents budget is approved. Other Forest Service research, including logging methods and prescription fire, will continue, he said.

If the presidents budget is approved, come Oct. 1 wed begin the process of closing down the unit, Mills said. The fence would come down and the telemetry system dismantled.

The closure of the 14-year-old research area will bring to a halt plans to begin a new study of the effects of grazing by wild game and domestic cattle on vegetation.

We know the influence of grazing, both domestic and wild, but what we dont know is what this does to plant communities over time, Mills said.

The effects of grazing, especially livestock grazing, has been the subject of debate between the ranching and environmental communities of Northeast Oregon.

Another proposed study would compare the effects of motorized traffic to foot and horseback traffic on ecology and wildlife. Mike Wisdom, a researcher in the La Grande office, said that the study has funds for only one year, far from enough time to reach a definitive conclusion.

Mills said that although theres nothing I like about the proposed closure, other new research projects will be added under the Bush budget, including an inventory and analysis of the national forestlands in the Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii.

Wisdom said that the loss of three scientists, a computer specialist and several range conservationists will translate into a loss of nearly $1.1 million annually for the communities of Union County. In addition to the seven lost jobs, one temporary position will end.

It is uncertain how the closing of the Starkey project will affect the funding of other research programs at the La Grande lab, because of operating costs, Wisdom said.

The Starkey project has been a collaboration of the Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon State University and the timber industrys National Council for Air and Stream Improvement. Jack Ward Thomas, Forest Service chief during the Clinton Administration, was a founder.

Construction of the miles of fence surrounding the approximately 25,000 acres began in the late 1980s. The interior was also fenced and cross fenced, giving researchers the ability to study game and cattle in differing conditions and separate the research animals from other wildlife.

Some of the research has been extremely helpful to the ODFW, Mills said. One was the breeding bull study about the effects of age (of bulls) in the survivability of calves.

Researchers found that the large, branched-antlered bulls were more successful in early-season breeding, and calves born early in the year were more likely to survive their first full winter.

One of the unique opportunities of Starkey is the opportunity to do some scientifically rigorous experiments and measure the results, he said.

Wisdom called the Starkey area the perfect outdoor lab for experiments in the wild. Its a one-of-a-kind place.

People come from all over the world, he said. Its the crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest Research Station.

The Starkey experimental project is not the only research victim of the Bush budget, although it is the largest reduction in Oregon. A Corvallis study of the genetic diversity of natural forest populations and ways management affects genetics will be cut in half, and several projects in Washington State and Alaska will be either reduced or eliminated.