Baldy

A 10-year-long project to improve forest health on Bald Mountain is set to begin as soon as August following a finding of no significant environmental impact by the U.S. Forest Service.

Proposed in November, the Bald Mountain Stewardship Project would remove dead and diseased trees, thin stands and plant trees on a total of 920 acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management property at the Sun Valley ski area.

“Tree mortality has increased and forest health has declined within the ski area and on adjacent public and private lands,” the Sawtooth National Forest stated in a 69-page environmental assessment, or EA, released early this week. “The number of dead and dying trees within the ski area has exceeded the ability of the Sun Valley Company to address [the problem] and has raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of the forests and safety of the Bald Mountain Ski Area [to] visitors.”

Forest Service scientists have attributed the changes to an increase in disease and insects that feed on trees. Douglas-fir dwarf mistletoe and Douglas-fir beetle are of primary concern, though mountain pine beetle, white pine blister rust, Douglas-fir tussock moth and other parasites have also damaged or killed trees. High stand densities, caused by fire exclusion and extended drought, have contributed to insect and disease expansion, the EA states.

With the finding of no significant impact, a more extensive environmental impact statement will not be legally required.

The EA concluded that the project would have little impact on wildlife or plants.

Elk and mule deer would experience only minor, temporary disturbance and short-term loss of hiding and thermal cover, though deer fawning habitat would be reduced. Over the long term, deer and elk may benefit through improved forest health, the EA states.

The EA found little likely impact on many other species of animals and plants.

The project includes a variety of vegetation treatments: commercial and noncommercial thinning, removal of dead and diseased trees, hazard tree removal, daylighting of whitebark pine and planting in previously treated areas.

 According to the EA, relatively high-altitude whitebark pine forests are declining due to the mountain pine beetle epidemics, fire exclusion and infections of white pine blister rust fungus. Daylighting of whitebark pine would remove all subalpine fir, lodgepole pine and Douglas-fir in irregular-shaped areas within 20-30 feet of the outer crown of whitebark pine trees on about 33 acres.

Lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir seedlings will be planted where openings are created from removing dead and diseased trees where sufficient residual seed trees for natural regeneration are lacking or where residual trees are heavily infected with dwarf mistletoe.

In all treatment areas, conifers except whitebark pine; large, healthy Douglas-fir; and legacy trees would be removed around healthy aspen stands to promote aspen growth.

All hazard trees within 100 to 150 feet of roads, structures, facilities and ski runs would be felled and the logs left on-site, though some may be removed from ski runs, roads and trails.

 Commercial harvest is proposed on 608 acres. The EA notes that due to steep slopes, much of the area cannot be logged with ground-based equipment, so cable or helicopters will need to be used. Even so, 2.3 miles of temporary roads will be built to facilitate commercial timber harvest.

The Forest Service concluded that the cost of removing timber will exceed its value, but doing it through commercial logging will mitigate that cost. The project is expected to generate 5.2 million board feet of sawtimber and firewood, worth about $2.67 million. The cost of felling and extracting it is expected to range between $3.1 million and $4.5 million.

Implementation of the project is pending a 45-day public objection period. Only people who have already submitted written comments are allowed to file objections. Objections may be electronically submitted to objections-intermtn-regional-office@usda.gov with Subject: Bald Mountain Stewardship.

The BLM’s Shoshone Field Office did not respond to a question about a decision on its portion of the project by press time Thursday.

Email the writer: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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