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Bald Mountain Stewardship Project Preserves Ski Resort Against Insects, Wildfire
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Jeff Walters said those harvesting dead and dying trees on Baldy say they’ve never worked on such steep slopes before.
   
Thursday, September 22, 2022
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Kurt Nelson surveyed a clearing that had just been carved out on a part of Bald Mountain known as Little Scorpion and envisioned skiing down the perfect fall line, which sported brown slash where dead and dying trees had once stood.

“I told Neil Bradshaw I’m not going to name a run after me, but if I did this would be it,” he said as he gazed down the new opening which fell 1,800 to 2,000 feet down the Warm Springs side of Bald Mountain.

That opening and many more have been opened up by a massive yellow 78,000-pound Ponsse harvester that has worked its way through the Frenchman’s and Scorpion areas this summer, removing dead and dying trees.

 
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Miller Timber Service, the largest company harvesting in this way, has 41 machines that were made in Finland and retail for $998,000 each.
 

While the prospect of better glade skiing has skiers salivating, the Bald Mountain Stewardship Project promises more than recreational benefits. It also is improving the health of the mountain forest and reducing fuels that could contribute to wildfire.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we’ve got a lot of dead trees on this mountain,” said Nelson, who oversees the Ketchum Ranger District. “In 2007 the Castle Rock Fire went right up to the edge of the ski area. And with fire comes the potential for insects, an epidemic of bark beetle.”

Immediately following the Castle Rock fire, the Forest Service dropped hundreds of pheromone packets tinier than dimes into Baldy’s woods to trick Douglas Fir beetles into thinking the area was already inhabited by beetles.

“We feel it was effective—to our west was a huge outbreak,” Nelson said.

 
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Dani Southard, whose National Forest Foundation has raised funds and organized volunteer efforts for the Bald Mountain Stewardship Project, points out beetle kill on the wood logged this summer.
 

But that didn’t eliminate the disease already on the mountain—part of it caused by dwarf mistletoe fungus, which creates a broom that suffocates trees’ ability to get nutrients.

Following the 2013 Beaver Creek Fire, Hailey resident Lynn Campion enlisted the help of the National Forest Foundation to convene several groups, including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Sun Valley Company, to figure out how to rehab areas that had been devastated by the 114,900-acre fire and prevent another fire of that magnitude.

Everyone immediately identified Bald Mountain as a vital resource that was at risk. A devastating wildfire that took out the ski resort would tank the area’s economy, they said.

“Who’s going to come ski a dead forest if we lost our trees, our mountain? And, if no one comes, we lose our community,” said Bigwood Bread’s George Golleher, who has raised more than a million dollars for the Bald Mountain Stewardship Project, which needs private donations to access public grants. “It’s our mountain. We have to do what we can to preserve it.”

 
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The latest round of MCH packets that deter Doulas fir bark beetles from attacking trees cover a broader reach than the ones used following the 2007 Castle Rock Fire. That means they no longer need to be tacked on every tree, said Dani Southard.
 

The Ketchum Ranger District and Sun Valley Company had started removing problematic trees in 2013 but their work was dictated by invisible boundaries that separated Forest Service land from BLM land.

The National Forest Foundation helped the two entities forge a unique partnership in 2019 allowing work to cross those boundaries.

About 200 acres of the 1,000 acres that need treatment have been treated since 2013. It will take 10 more years at a good clip to finish that, estimated Nelson.

This year 65 acres are being treated, thanks in part to monetary donations by Sun Valley Company and community individuals to match federal grants that require 20 percent private contributions.

 
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George Golleher examines this Ponsse machine, which was sidelined temporarily last week until Bald Mountain received enough rain that there was no risk of sparking a fire.
 

“We’ve never done more than 37 acres in one season before so this is a monumental step,” said Peter Stearns, Sun Valley Resort’s director of mountain operations.

By the time all 1,000 acres are treated, it’ll be time to address other areas of the mountain, noted Jeff Walters, mountain services manager for Miller Timber Service, which is harvesting the trees.

“We need to manage the forest like a crop—leave it alone and we’ll end up dealing with another Smiley Creek,” he added, noting how the Ross Fork Fire ripped through large stands of lodgepole that had been killed by pine beetle over Labor Day Weekend.

Addressing the problem has involved trial and error. Early on the Ketchum Ranger District tried  traditional logging, but Baldy’s 45-degree slopes proved too steep for that.

What did work was the Ponsse harvester supplied by the Oregon-based Miller Timber Service. The 78,000-pound lumberjack works its way down slopes with the help of a winch tethered to a tree. It grasps a tree, cuts it, strips the tree of branches, then cuts the tree into lengths of 24 to 27 feet.

Any longer and the truck hauling them off the mountain wouldn’t be able to navigate the switchbacks.

The harvester works in an area 60 feet wide. When done, it climbs back to the top and works on the next 60 feet.

A forerunner, also tied to a tree by a winch, removes the material that’s been cut, loading it onto a truck sitting on the cat track. The truck then makes a 2.5-hour round trip to the Greyhawk parking lot where it deposits the logs.

The harvesting is done so that no one will look up from the valley floor and see an ugly clear cut. Aspen trees evade getting cut because they’re few and far between. Some younger trees are removed to give healthy, older ones a better chance. But, in general, the Harvest leaves 8- to 14-year-old trees alone.

“They’re the future,” said Stearns.

Not every dead and dying tree is removed.

“If we took all the dead trees, all the trees with mistletoe, there’d be very little left so we pick and choose,” said Walters. “We leave five to six dead trees per acre for the pileated woodpecker and other wildlife. We leave 10 to 15 feet of space between trees so there’s a good chance they’re getting what limited moisture there is.”

The Bald Mountain Stewardship Project is so unique that both the National Forest Foundation’s Northern Rockies Director Dani Southard and Kurt Nelson field calls from forest and ski area supervisors wondering how more than 60 individuals and organizations have come together to make it work.

It takes a lot of juggling, Nelson noted, since Sun Valley Resort is a four-season resort and the work has to be done with minimal impact to summer mountain biker and hikers.

One of the most difficult parts of the puzzle was figuring out what to do with the wood carted off the mountain, said Southard.

The Bald Mountain Stewardship Project donated 450 cords of wood to the Shoshone-Paiute tribe on the Duck Valley reservation south of Mountain Home to be distributed to the elderly and disabled who rely on wood to heat their homes. It took another 250 cords to the Shoshone-Bannock tribe on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation near Pocatello.

Neither tribe has the ability to access firewood close to home.

“The Wood for Life program is something that’s important to our partners—taking wood from national forests and getting it to indigenous communities,” said Southard. “We’re providing wood to tribal communities whose ancestral lands include Bald Mountain. Young people in the community are learning how to cut the wood and distribute it to single mothers and others who need it most. Moving forward, we'll be working with our partners to explore opportunities to improve the efficiency of wood stove heating systems there."

Four firewood suppliers in the Wood River Valley have purchased some of the remaining wood at reasonable prices to sell locally. And Dave Zortman’s Sticks and Stones in Shoshone is building cabins with the remainder of the wood.

The money from wood sales goes back into the program for next year,” said Southard.

The group is considering treating the Cold Springs or Seattle Ridge areas next year if construction begins in April 2023 on new lifts for the Warm Springs side of Baldy, as expected. That will shift all the summer recreation to the River Run side of Baldy, Nelson noted.

The following year, he says, they could treat the Olympic Ridge area.

“Who ever thought they’d see as many logging trucks going through downtown Ketchum as we have this summer,” he added. “It’s got a lot of skiers excited about what’s happening. To have the community behind us means a lot.”

DONATIONS MULTIPLIED

The National Forest Foundation is matching contributions to the Bald Mountain Stewardship Fund five-to one, and Bigwood Bakery is offering a one-to-one match.  That means every $1 a Wood River Valley resident contributes becomes $10; every $100 donated becomes $1,000.

Donations should be made to the National Forest Foundation, a 501©3 organization, and include “Bald Mountain Stewardship Project” in the subject line. Drop donations off at Bigwood Break Bakery and Café in Ketchum or send to Bigwood Bread at PO. Box 6332, Ketchum, 83340.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Contact Dani Southard with the National Forest Foundation at dsouthard@nationalforests.org or 208-720-0957.

Or attend the upcoming Science Pub that Idaho Conservation League is hosting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, at Sawtooth Brewery in Ketchum. Leading the discussion will be ICL’s Josh Johnson and Zach Poff, acting program manager for Forest Legacy & Community Forest and Open Space Programs.

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