June 18, 2003 11:00 pm

Wallowa County's economy, like much of Oregon's, is in the throes of a recession. The tourist-based sector is just beginning its short season, a time when things do tend to look up at least for a while.

But timber jobs continue to be fewer and farther between, and the one mill still operating in Wallowa is hanging on in hopes that things will improve. To top it off, consumers nationwide are holding back from spending on services or retail like they do when the economy is strong. Times are tough, and except for Wallowa County's summer tourist season, the prospects for growth right now don't appear too great.

The county needs every advantage it can muster, which is why efforts to make the Wallowa Union Railroad work are critical. The railroad authority has established a budget for its first year of operation. It's a budget that relies on a lot of "ifs.'' But as silly as the whole concept might seem to critics, the future importance of the rail line cannot be understated. Keeping the link available is worth the effort, even as impossible as gathering needed funds might seem to be.

The rail authority's budget is an optimistic one at best. The budget for the coming year relies on an as-yet-uncertain grant request of $390,500 from the ODOT Rail Division and projects freight revenue of $322,500. The latter, of course, is dependent on the viability of Wallowa Forest Products, which is finding logs hard to come by but is staying afloat — at least for now. The mill cut its night shift March 31 and shut down its day shift in May. But the day shift was put back on June 2.

Critics of Wallowa and Union counties' purchase of the railway say the railroad is a longshot, that there is no guarantee about future freight contracts and that an excursion train could take years to turn a profit. The critics and opponents of the counties' rail purchase are right. The whole thing is a longshot. But the reality is that the longshot is worth the effort for the sake of Wallowa County's future. If no one had taken the risk, if no one dared to dream the impossible, the rail corridor would be gone. Gone forever. Too many communities have wound up regretting the loss of the their short-line railroads.

The rail authority's budget seems like pie in the sky. It hinges on a lot of things that can't be taken for granted. But going after the state money, just like seeking a federal grant to help retire the debt for the purchase, is worth the effort. Both the state and feds need to lend a hand to this start-up operation and make an investment in Wallowa County.

The rail line is worth preserving, even if it has to sit idle until the time — and the times — are right.