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Bald Mountain-Banding Together to Save an Iconic Mountain
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Friday, July 23, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

If the towering Douglas Fir tree hadn’t already been dead, it would have been quaking at its roots.

The yellow all-terrain vehicle tied to an upslope tree by a winch rolled down to the tree, grabbed its trunk, then stripped off its bark and branches before cutting it into logs in a matter of seconds.

This monstrous 78,000-pound lumberjack—awesome, even terrifying to watch—is a key player in ensuring the future of Bald Mountain ski area.

The Ponsse Harvester is enlisted in the Bald Mountain Stewardship Project, a 10-year project to remove  dead and diseased trees and plant new trees on the world-famous ski hill, as well as an area stretching south to Greenhorn.

“Our hope is that in 20, 30, 40, 50 years whoever visiting has same view as you do now,” Ketchum Ranger District spokesperson Zach Poff told reporters and Forest Service officials bent on learning more about the project.

Bald Mountain—the symbol of America’s first destination ski resort—has risen majestically above the Wood River Valley, its trees even embodying a peace sign when viewed from Trail Creek Road. But the mountain has been greying as Douglas Fir beetles ravage its trees and parasitic dwarf mistletoe retards growth, eventually killing trees.

The Forest Service has been trying to address the problem for a few decades, said Poff. But the problem worsened following the 2007 Castle Rock Fire when fire burned trees just outside ski area boundaries, pushing Doug Fir beetle into the ski area.

The Bald Mountain Stewardship Project formed in 2019 to address concerns over forest health, fire risk and insect outbreak.

It’s involves the partnership of the U.S. Forest Service, Sun Valley Company, Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Foundation, which engaged the community in a novel approach that’s catching the eye of other ski resorts and communities throughout the west.

With the help of the Ponsse Harvester, provided by Oregon’s Miller Timber Service, the project removed dead and diseased trees on 56 acres in 2019. It addressed 31 acres last year and it’s tackling 23 this year.

The work benefits wildlife, which will get a new smorgasbord in areas where young plants are able to sprout. It opens up tree skiing for skiers. And it clears areas so that firefighters can get into those areas if they need to without having to worry about snags falling on them.

Poff acknowledged that the work needs to be done faster. But funding limits the amount of work that can be done in a given year. So does attempts not to disrupt wildlife and recreationalists.

Already this year the popular Roundhouse Connector trail and Roundhouse Lane have been closed for the past couple weeks and they will remain closed through the end of July because of work on the River Run side of the mountain.

“This is a four-season resort and Sun Valley has been extremely accommodating to shut down trails to make this work,” Poff said.

Sun Valley was one of the first to employ the Ponsse Harvester, whose prototype was invented in 1970  by a Finn out of recyclables. To demonstrate its value, Sun Valley’s Mountain Operations Director Peter Stearns stopped the white pickup truck he was driving on I-80 above an area that had been cleared by the Harvester last year.

The Harvester works its way down steep 75-degree and 80-degree slopes with the help of a winch tethered to a tree, he said. It’s like a ballet, he said, the winch working in synchronization with the harvesting.

“The harvester can work on extremely challenging ground without us having to build a road. It leaves  minimal impact on the ground and causes minimal erosion,” he said.

The Harvester’s companion—another lumberjack on a tractor known as a Forerunner—removes the material that’s cut. Previous operations left logs and other material on the ground, which did nothing to reduce the fuel load in the event of a fire.

Volunteers helped plant 10,000 lodgepole and Ponderosa pine in the Frenchman’s Gulch area last year, noted Dani Southard, manager of the Northern Rockies chapter of the National Forest Foundation. They also planted 150 whitebark pine seedlings to address the loss of that tree, which provides valuable food for bears and Clark’s Nutcracker birds.

Local students skied around the mountain last winter tacking pheromone packets on trees designed to trick beetle into thinking that a tree is already occupied so they won’t attack it.

“Bald Mountain is what fuels the local economy. It brings tourism and the businesses that are here. It’s the view shed, the backdrop and the heart of the community,” said Southard, whose National Forest Foundation has been a catalyst in bringing together groups to work on the 920-acre project and to secure grants and private donations for the work.

Steve Scheid, the program manager for recreational special uses for the U.S. Forest Service, came from Utah to tag along on the tour of Bald Mountain. Schmid called the project very unique and one that the 21 ski resorts he works with in the Intermountain Division could copy.

Twenty years ago, he said, 75 percent of the Forest Service workforce was involved in recreation and timber; 20 percent addressed wildfire. Now, more than 60 percent of the workforce is dedicated to fighting fires, depleting the budget for recreation.

Scheid, who fought the Castle Rock Fire on Bald Mountain, eyeballed the woods on the River Run side of Bald Mountain as he rode the River Run and Lookout Express chairlifts.

“Look at these trees--they’re all the same age,” he said, as he noted thick stands of pine.

Historically, ground fires kept fires small, creating a mosaic of young and old trees, Scheid noted. But trees allowed to grow without periodic fire allow fire when it starts to jump on low-hanging branches and climb to the top of trees with fire spreading from tree top to tree top.

Thinning them out means that any fire that comes through would most likely stay on the ground. And that reduces the intensity of the fire so the soil doesn’t become hydrophobic, repelling rain and snow that does fall.

One of the considerations has been what to do with the felled logs, said Southard.

“This is not valuable timber. These are dead and dying trees,” she said.

Last year, Southard said, Sun Valley Company donated the cut logs and the National Forest Foundation transported them to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation giving the logs to people to heat their homes.

John Rriling, a silviculturist for the Boise National Forest, said another option is turning the wood into biochar by burning the logs in a kiln or even a dumpster, then dousing them with water as they reach charcoal stage. The biochar can then be put on garden soil to provide nutrients.

Southard said that every $1 the community contributes to the project between now and the end of the year will be matched and leveraged with an additional $4 from the National Forest Foundation, a 501c3 organization, and the U.S. Forest Service.

“Our goal is to invest $500,000 into the project next summer,” she said. “All to support the removal of dead and downed wood and replanting efforts on Bald Mountain.”

For more information or to contribute, contact Dani Southard at dsouthard@nationalforests.org or call 208-720-0957.


 

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