Saturday, December 14, 2019
Sun Valley’s Baldy in the Crosshairs
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The trees of Bald Mountain are in trouble.
 
Monday, September 9, 2019
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Bald Mountain has long been the iconic landmark of Sun Valley.

It’s arguably one of the most beautiful faces bestowed upon a North American ski resort. And, viewed from the right spot on Trail Creek Summit Road, its ski runs even form a peace sign.

But the mountain could become unrecognizable in coming years. It could even lose its peace sign.

 
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Witches’ broom—dense clusters of twigs—form from the stress brought on by dwarf mistletoe disease.
 

“It could look very different whether you cut down trees or whether they all die,” said Zach Poff, recreation programs manager for the Ketchum Ranger District. “If mortality continues, there’s a high likelihood Baldy could look brown and dead.”

The problem is populations of insects and pathogens, which skyrocket during periods of drought and unusually warm temperatures. When it happens year after year, it can cause significant damage or even death of the forest.

Over the past 10 to 20 years the forests around the Wood River Valley have been significantly impacted by Douglas fir bark beetles, dwarf mistletoe, pine beetle and white pine blister rust.

The 2007 Castle Rock Fire and 2013 Beaver Creek Fire wrapped Bald Mountain, creating an island of green surrounded by significantly burned forest.

 
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Dozens of trees overlooking ski runs in the Frenchman’s area are feeling poorly.
 

That prompted the bark beetle to take up residence on Bald Mountain. Inherently lazy, they have set up camp and stayed, refusing to fly even across the highway.

Dwarf mistletoe has established its tentacles in both mature and young trees, robbing them of nutrients and weakening the ability of the trees to withstand the beetle infestation.

 “It’s not always mortal but it makes them more stressed, making it easier for beetles to move in,” said Poff. “It’s been going on for a long time, but the Castle Rock Fire accelerated things.”

The Ketchum Ranger District has planted packets in the woods, which release pheromones that tell the beetles: This tree is already under attack. Go elsewhere.

 
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Even trees in The Bowls have succumbed to pests.
 

But the problem continues to worsen. A wide swatch of trees died in the Cold Springs area of Baldy last year and the problem is worsening on the Warm Springs side. The old growth Douglas Fir of Baldy’s Central Park has seen a lot of mortality over the last five years and the infestation appears to be heading into Greenhorn Gulch.

The Ketchum Ranger District is embarking on an environmental analysis and planning process known as the Bald Mountain Stewardship Project to develop a project that will improve forest resiliency.

It could include any number of proposals from using herbicides to planting a wider diversity of tree species, particularly those not as susceptible to attack from insects and parasites. It could also involve stepping up efforts to control pests by a variety of means, including cutting out stands of trees.

“We don’t know at this point what we will do. There may be science out there that we don’t know about,” said Poff. “Bogus Basin ski area near Boise and Brundage Mountain near McCall are struggling with these same issues. So are Colorado resorts. And they’re using a variety of different options, including helicopter logging.”

 
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Zach Poff wants community imput on how to improve the resiliency of the forests on Baldy.
 

“It’s a big problem that the Forest Service and other agencies don’t have solution to,” added Matt Filbert, fuels specialist for the Sawtooth National Forest. “We need the community to step in and help us figure it out.”

Dani Southard, the Northern Rockies program manager for the National Forest Foundation has been meeting with government, business, recreation and other community leaders to gauge their thoughts about the threat to Baldy.

Her National Forest Foundation, which facilitates projects to enhance the nation’s forests, will hold a discussion about the decline of the forest across the Wood River Valley and specifically Bald Mountain from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23, at Ketchum’s Community Library.

The event will offer an overview of forest health in the Wood River Valley, as well as the history of insect and disease issues on Bald Mountain. It will look at historic and current forest management on Bald Mountain. And it will give the community a chance to offer suggestions about what should take place in the future.

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

Sun Valley Company, which has a special use permit for Bald Mountain, cleared dozens of acres of trees on Bald Mountain over the past few years to reduce fuel and promote forest health. But small projects involving 20 acres at a time are at best a Band-aid, said Poff.

“It’s going to take community collaboration. We have potential partnerships with others like the Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Fish and Game and private landholders. And we need to figure out how to get regional and national authorities to recognize how important this is.”

Right now, the Ketchum Ranger District is focused on treating 1,500 acres. But Poff would like to see that expand.

He admitted that efforts to improve forest health are “behind the eight-ball.” But he’s trying to shorten the process of the Bald Mountain Stewardship Timeline, which includes public scoping and environmental assessment, from its average 16 to 24 months to 10. He would like to be able to start implementation by May or June of 2020.

“In our favor is the fact that we’ve done a lot of analysis on this area before. So, hopefully, we won’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

“I want the community involved because we will see changes on that mountain, whether we do nothing or whether we take aggressive action, he added. “We need to find out if the community is okay with something like burning slash on Baldy in the fall.”

It’s important to realize that this is not political but something that everybody has a stake in, said Lynn Campion, who invited the National Forest Foundation to help with rehabilitation following the Beaver Creek Fire.

 “It’s going to take community collaboration,” agreed Southard. “The mountain means everything to this area from an economic standpoint, as a recreation amenity, as a place for wildlife. All our cellular and other communications systems, as well as weather services, are on Bald Mountain. It is an incredible community asset.

 “We want to know what’s important to everyone who works, lives and play here. How can everybody work together to make a more resilient landscape? How can we work together to make this area more wildfire resistant?”

TUSSOCK MOTH INFESTATION

The fir trees that have been defoliated this summer near Elkhorn’s Sunrise subdivision have something different eating them. Blame the tussock moth caterpillars, which eat the trees’ needles.


 

 

 

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