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Bald Mountain Gets New Residents Courtesy of Volunteers
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Sunday, October 23, 2022
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Seventeen-year-old Maya Lightner scanned the steep slope next to Upper Canyon ski run on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain. Before too long, this Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation racer would be skiing this off-piste slope.

But on this particular day she was looking for the easiest way down through recently cut slash. She picked her way down stepping gingerly on tree branches still sporting needles and making her way around stumps and boulders.

Abruptly she stopped, plunging a hoedad—a straight-bladed tool used for planting--into the ground. Then she took a foot-tall lodgepole pine seedling from the bag she wore around her waist. And, in a move reminiscent of Johnny Appleseed, she stuck the seedling in the hole she had just created.

“This is part of doing something for the environment we love so much,” said Lightner, who podiumed at the Junior Nationals alpine ski championships last winter. “I ski and hike this mountain throughout the year and I want to be a part of providing a sustainable and healthy environment.”

Lightner was one of seven Sun Valley Community School students who, along with Head of School Ben Pettit, gave up a day off from school to take part in the Bald Mountain Reforestation Project.

They joined 13 other community members and representatives of Sun Valley Resort, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation in planting a thousand tree seedlings in an area where dead and diseased Douglas Firs had been removed to improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfire.

A few days earlier a professional crew had planted another 2,300 seedlings.

Nathan Mills, lead forester for the Bald Mountain Stewardship Project, said the Forest Service is trying to plant different species of trees to increase diversity on the mountain, which until now has been dominated by Douglas Fir.

Lodgepole pine is not susceptible to Douglas fir beetle or mistletoe, he said. The Forest Service planted whitebark pine on the upper part of the mountain last year and will likely plant ponderosa pine, which is drought-tolerant, next year.

The effort is part of the Bald Mountain Stewardship Project, which started in 2019 to remove trees that had succumbed to insects and disease following the 2007 Castle Rock Fire and the 2013 Beaver Creek Fire. But it’s also part of a national effort to plant 50 million trees in a five-year period to combat climate change, said Dani Southard, the local representative of the National Forest Foundation, which has helped coordinate the project.

“I ski a hundred days a year, and I figure I might as well take care of my backyard,” said Bruce Allenbaugh, offering his reasons for volunteering.

The year-old lodgepole seedlings were grown at the Lucky Peak Nursey near Boise from seeds foresters collected.

“We go to the logging areas and grab some of the pinecones from trees that have been cut down. And we climb some trees and collect the cones at the top,” said Zack Smith, timber program manager for the Sawtooth National Forest.

Some of the volunteers had done trail work before, removing downed trees, cutting back stinging nettle and establishing water drainage bars. But this was much more precarious as planters spaced 10 feet from one another moved down a steep slope picking their way over all kinds of debris.

“We’re not slinging tools over our shoulders. We’re not Forty-Niners,” Mills cautioned them. “And get down on one knee to plant so you don’t strain your back.”

A massive 78,000-pound Ponsse harvester has been grabbing diseased and dead trees, stripping their limbs and cutting them into lengths suitable for trucking them off the mountain over the past few years. Projects have taken place in Cold Springs, the Frenchman’s area, Central Park and, most recently, the Warm Springs side of the mountain where the Bald Mountain Stewardship project created 54 acres of gladed tree skiing in Little Scorpion, an area that had been out of bounds.

Mills pointed out how the harvester had left some diseased trees in order to maintain forest integrity next to runs. It also passed over aspen trees and subalpine fir, a rocket-shaped fir tree.

“We don’t have a lot of issues with subalpine fir,” he said.

Eventually, the forest on Bald Mountain would have regenerated naturally with the help of birds and wind spreading pinecone seeds. But it wouldn’t have happened in our lifetime, he added. It also would not have included the diversity that human planting offers to mitigate dwarf mistletoe and other chronic diseases.

Ben Pettit said he thought it important to show up for the work since 270 of his school’s 444 students compete on Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation teams and since outdoor education is a cornerstone of the school’s mission.

“We encourage environmental stewardship and service to the community, and we’ve challenged each student to make 50 impacts this year for our 50th anniversary,” he added.

Southard called the Bald Mountain Stewardship Project “a really unique project” that is addressing 7,000 acres in the vicinity, including all of the ski area’s 2,600 acres. Workers harvested 80 acres on the warm springs side of the mountain this summer and they’re spreading MCH bark beetle deterrent pheromones on 240 acres.

“Bald Mountain is our primary view shed. It’s our backyard and our economic generator so we need to take care of it,” she added.

Jenna Vagias a spokesperson for Sun Valley Resort, smiled as she looked over the work volunteers were doing.

“Our biggest thing now is waiting on Mother Nature,” she said.

DID YOU KNOW?

The Bald Mountain Reforestation Project will probably focus on culling dying trees from Olympic Ridge next summer since Sun Valley Resort hopes to spend the summer installing new chairlifts on the Warm Springs side of the mountain.

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.

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