Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Gondola, snowmaking top priorities for Baldy

Feds complete environmental review of mountain master plan

Sun Valley Co. General Manager Wally Huffman says the planning process that has led to release of a master development plan for Bald Mountain has taken four years and cost about $750,000. He said he hopes to obtain approval for a new master development plan and get a new 40-year special use permit for ski area operations on Baldy by December 2007. Photo by Trevor Schubert


Express Staff Writers

Getting non-skiers to a renovated Roundhouse restaurant and installing additional snowmaking top a list of priorities for Bald Mountain put forth by Sun Valley Co. officials this week. The changes, if approved and implemented, could constitute $15 million to $20 million in on-mountain improvements on Bald Mountain over the next five years.

"Baldy is 90 percent developed, maybe 95 percent developed. Traffic, noise, visual impacts are all there, and it's taken four years and three-quarters of a million dollars to get here," Sun Valley Co. General Manager Wally Huffman said this week.

A two-year federal environmental review and master planning process for Bald Mountain has finally yielded results.

In a conference held at River Run Lodge Monday, Feb. 26, Huffman said ensuring quality snow in the Frenchman's area during Christmas week is a chief goal of the proposed actions highlighted in a 350-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement jointly released by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The other top priority includes installation of a gondola from the mountain's River Run base to the historic Roundhouse restaurant.

While Sun Valley Co. owns Dollar Mountain, it operates skiing on Bald Mountain under special use permits administered by the Sawtooth National Forest's Ketchum Ranger District and the BLM's Shoshone Field Office. The existing 30-year permits were signed in 1977 and are set to expire in December 2007. Sun Valley Co. has requested to renew the permits for a 40-year term.

Along with reissuing the permits, Sun Valley is required to develop a master development plan, which will outline potential on-mountain improvements over the next 10 to 15 years. The most recent master development plan was issued in 1989, and most of the actions described therein have been implemented.

The draft environmental document, which includes the first of three phases, is available for public review.

"There is a 45-day public comment period, which begins with the publication (of notice in the Federal Register)," said Lori Armstrong, field manager of the BLM's Shoshone Field Office.

During a comment period that coincided with development of the plan, two items stood out, said Ketchum Ranger District Recreation Program Manager Joe Miczulski.

"There were more total comments on a terrain park," he said. "There was more controversy on the Guyer Ridge proposal," which would include installing snowmaking and leveling a ridgeline to form a new ski trail on the Warm Springs side of the mountain. A suitable location for a terrain park has yet to be determined. Lower Greyhawk or Janss Pass, along the bare side of the south-facing slope, are the spots under consideration for a potential terrain park.

But neither of those items topped Huffman's list of priorities.

"Ensuring there is quality snow in Frenchman's during the Christmas week is critical to our success," Huffman said. Frenchman's already has the necessary pipes in the ground but the guns that extend above ground have yet to be approved and attached.

The issue of snowmaking in the Frenchman's area has been contentious because of the potential for increased noise, but studies conducted during the environmental analysis indicated the difference would be negligible, said Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson.

And Huffman indicated that snowmaking operations in the area would be short-lived each season.

"Once we have a good layer down it won't be necessary to continue making snow," he said.

The Frenchman's area is located in a well-shaded valley between the River Run and Warm Spring sides of the mountain. It's an area conducive to holding snow.

"I would dearly like to go into Christmas skiing Frenchman's, and it is going to take everyone's commitment to make this happen," Huffman said.

The second priority outlined by Huffman is Sun Valley Co.'s plans to build a gondola from Baldy's River Run base to Roundhouse restaurant, located about half way up the mountain.

"I have heard a lot of people say, 'We don't need no stinking gondola,'" Huffman said. "And from a skiing perspective, it's questionable."

As it stands, however, non-skiers making their way to Roundhouse have to hitch a ride on two lifts, the second being the somewhat arcane Exhibition lift.

"For foot passengers, a fixed-grip lift is very difficult to enter and exit," Huffman said. "Basically, the lift has to be stopped and started each time."

This enclosed method of transit would allow Roundhouse to be open year around, Huffman said, adding that the restaurant would be open for lunch and dinner.

Skiers might gripe about having to take their skis off and walk onto and off of the gondola, but "the speed and comfort of the gondola will very quickly become the standard," Huffman said.

A notable aspect of the proposal, but not one of Huffman's top priorities, is addition of a Guyer Ridge ski trail. Guyer Ridge would extend along the spine where the International ski run now begins. The proposed addition would, in effect, connect International to near the bottom of Cozy.

"The only reason I have not listed this high on our list of priorities is simply because I am not sure how it will turn out," Huffman said. "(Guyer Ridge) will be a very expensive run to make."

As it stands, there are two approaches to the proposed master plan. One calls for grading and clearing trees on the ridge and installing snowmaking. The other would allow for strategic thinning, where approximately 40 percent of the trees would be removed.

Guyer Ridge is peppered with rock outcroppings and other obstacles that would have to be removed for the full run, complete with snowmaking, to be built.

"I'm willing to sit back and look at the alternatives. I could go one way or the other," Huffman said of the Guyer Ridge alternatives.

Vegetation management is another crucial aspect of the proposal, and one Huffman said he does not want to be overlooked.

"We have nearly 5 million acres of forest surrounding us, and it's diseased—there's no panacea for this," Huffman said. "The revival of the forest is not possible in our lifetimes."

The plan is, instead of attempting to replant and revive the conifer forest that dominates Bald Mountain, to "plant species in some of the worst areas that grow fairly rapidly," Huffman said.

The list of native trees that fit the bill includes, but is not limited to, willow, aspen and cottonwood. The goal to create a canopy that would allow for the long-term generation of conifer forest, Huffman said.

Bald Mountain's ski area includes approximately 3,325 acres of public land on both Forest Service and BLM administered land. The ski area currently has a total of 14 lifts and 65 runs that cover more than 2,000 acres of skiable terrain.

The mountain has a vertical drop of 3,400 feet.

Alternative 2 (proposed action)

· Build Guyer Ridge trail.

· Realign and grade Olympic Lane and Lower Olympic trails.

· Build Seattle Ridge trail.

· Build terrain park on Lower Greyhawk.

· Operate previously-installed snowmaking in Frenchman's area.

· Install snowmaking on Olympic Lane, Olympic Ridge, Lower Olympic, Broadway Face, Lower Broadway, Guyer Ridge, Upper Cozy, Upper Hemingway, Christmas Bowl, Brick's Island, Can-Can, French Dip and proposed Seattle Ridge trail.

· Remove Exhibition triple chair.

· Build gondola from River Run plaza to Roundhouse restaurant.

· Renovate Roundhouse restaurant.

· Adjust ski area boundaries.

· Implement vegetation treatments.

Alternative 3 (similar to Alternative 2, but with changes)

· All grading of Guyer Ridge trail would be eliminated; instead the area would be "strategically thinned," by removing approximately 40 percent of overstory vegetation.

· Build terrain park in Frenchman's area, between south slopes and Janss Pass trail.

· Snowmaking would be scaled back.

To get involved

· Copies of the draft environmental impact statement are available in a number of formats. Hard copies can be reviewed at Forest Service offices in Ketchum and Twin Falls or at the BLM's Shoshone Field Office in Shoshone, as well as at all Wood River Valley libraries.

· A public open house has been scheduled for Tuesday, March 6, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Ketchum Community Library.

· Written, electronic or faxed comments are requested. Specific information on how and where to submit comments is contained in the draft environmental document.

· Further information can be obtained by contacting Ketchum Ranger District Winter Sports Manager Joe Miczulski at (208) 622-5371 or BLM Outdoor Recreation Planner John Kurtz at (208) 732-7296.

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