June 20, 2001 11:00 pm

By The Observer

Fourteen federal biologists and team leaders will join Union Countys workforce.

Three of the 14 employees of the National Marine Fisheries Service have already begun working under team leader Randy Tweten in a new field office in La Grande. Another three will arrive in July and the remainder will be on board by mid-autumn.

Eleven jobs were created by the national fire plan, approved late last year after last summers devastating fires in Montana and other western states. Those scientists will consult with public agencies that are embarking on management programs to reduce the impact of wildfire and restore burned areas.

The biologists analyze the effects of any activity on streams that are habitat for anadromous fish (salmon and steelhead). They consult on restoration and improvement projects along and within these fish-bearing streams.

Another three biologists will work with agencies to design non-fire-related restoration and improvement projects, such as the ongoing riparian projects funded by the Grande Ronde Model Watershed.

The La Grande field office, housed in the La Grande Ranger District on Highway 30, is one of four new offices in the Northwest. The other three are in Salmon and Grangeville, Idaho, and Ellensburg, Wash.

Tweten said the La Grande-based biologists will work within the Columbia Basin areas that include the Deschutes, John Day, Umatilla and Grande Ronde river basins.

The biologists will consult with agencies in the early planning stages of management to design projects that will have the least impact on fish, Tweten said.

Well meet with people restoring a fire area and influence the design, he said. Well meet with biologists and planners to craft projects.

Tweten said up-front meetings with agencies should reduce the gridlock that occasionally occurs during the consultation process of riparian improvement projects. Some local organizations, such as the Grande Ronde Model Watershed Board, have expressed frustration with the slow pace of consultation.

Brian Gorman, a fisheries spokesman from the Seattle office, said funding for the 11 fire plan employees is secure for two years. Tweten said, however, that real changes in the fire-prone landscape will take much longer.

Its taken us 100 years to get where we are now, he said. Were not going to change things that quickly.