The Salmon-Challis National Forest will begin a multi-year project to reduce conifer intrusion into sagebrush habitat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday.
In a decision memo dated April 20, Forest Supervisor Charles Mark stated that the project area spans nearly 200,000 acres across the forest, encompassing the Lost River Ranger District—which includes the Copper Basin region on the east side of Trail Creek Pass—and the Challis-Yankee Fork, Leadore, North Fork and Salmon-Cobalt ranger districts. It is expected that about 3,000 acres of treatment could occur on a yearly basis, but could vary as funding and capacity allow, the memo states.
According to the memo, the project will entail girdling, or bark-stripping, and felling of trees using chainsaws and pile-burning. One intended outcome of the tree removal is a boost in sage grouse populations, Mark stated.
“Conifer encroachment removes the usage of historic sagebrush habitat as sage-grouse habitat, since sage-grouse prefer sagebrush habitat that has very few trees with-in it,” he said. “[Conifer stands] also create perches for predators of sage-grouse to locate and ambush the grouse.”
Mark said fire suppression has helped enable conifer stands to spread downward on slopes into lower-elevation sagebrush country. Once there, the trees can change the natural fire regimes of the area, he said.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, encroaching conifers can block sunlight and take water supply from native grasses, allowing invasive species like cheatgrass to thrive.
“The greater the cover of perennial grasses and forbs prior to treatment, the greater likelihood the system can resist invasion by cheatgrass,” its website states.
Not everyone agrees.
Katie Fite of Hailey-based Wildlands Defense told the Express that while forest officials have claimed that the project will improve sagebrush habitat for sage grouse and help prevent fires, it will have the opposite effect.
“It will create hotter, drier cheatgrass-choked sites, especially in the aftermath of soil-scalding pile burning,” she said. “It will increase, not decrease wildfire risk.”
Fite also said the project will result in wasteful deforestation and weed expansion.
“People will return to some of their favorite dispersed camping sites or patches of trees where big game species seek cover only to find that the USFS has wiped out the forest,” she said.
Marks’ decision memo states that under federal law, no environmental analysis is required for timber-stand or wildlife habitat-improvement activities that do not include the use of herbicides or do not require more than one mile of road construction.
As of press deadline Tuesday, project lead Jim Hunteman had not responded to an inquiry from the Express as to when the project will begin. For an overview of the project and its areas of impact, visit tinyurl.com/yagw4sdp.