Friday, March 9, 2007

Feds taking public comment on Baldy plan

Final day to voice concerns and questions is April 9

Express Staff Writer

Image courtesy of SE Group An aerial view of Bald Mountain?s River Run area shows the proposed gondola route and the Exhibition chairlift that will be removed if Sun Valley?s proposal goes through.

The public comment period for the Bald Mountain master plan Draft Environmental Impact Statement is in full swing, and representatives of the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Sun Valley Co. are listening.

"So far, the comments we heard were pretty positive for the most part," said Kurt Nelson, district ranger for the Sawtooth National Forest's Ketchum Ranger District. "But it's too early to say if this is indicative of the public in general."

Items expected to receive the most discussion during the 45-day public comment period included proposals for increased snowmaking, a gondola from the base of River Run to a renovated Roundhouse restaurant, a new terrain park, and the potential leveling of Guyer Ridge for a new ski trail.

"We're pretty light on responses so far," Nelson said of the official public comments received by his office. "Most people just wanted to see the differences in the proposals. We'll probably get a flood of comments in the last few days because people tend to wait until the last minute. It's just human nature."

On Tuesday, March 6, an open house at the Ketchum Community Library gave citizens their first chance to ask questions and voice concerns regarding the proposals.

"People didn't really provide specific comments to me," said John Kurtz, outdoor recreation manager for the BLM's Shoshone Field Office. "There were a lot of questions; most surrounded Guyer Ridge, the gondola and the terrain park."

The idea of adding snowmaking to the Frenchman's area was initially one of the biggest concerns regarding Sun Valley Co.'s proposal. Questions centered on the possible noise impacts snowmaking machines could have on the West Ketchum neighborhood below. Subsequent studies conducted during the environmental analysis indicated the difference in decibel levels would be negligible, Nelson said.

"I don't think I received one question about Frenchman's," Kurtz said. "The noise study went a long way to alleviating public concerns."

Sun Valley resident Milt Adam agreed.

"For us skiers in attendance, we want to activate the snow system in the Frenchman's area. The pipes are already in the ground, and that's an area we want to be able to ski during Christmas week," Adam said.

The Guyer Ridge proposal has raised concern among citizens living in and near the Warm Springs area of Ketchum. Guyer Ridge would be a ski run connecting what exists as International ski run and lower Cozy ski run. The ridge is high above, though visible from, the Board Ranch development.

Some Warm Springs-area residents, however, are thus far declining to speak on the record because of conflicts of interest. Their concerns appear to be twofold.

The first is the absence of hard numbers of the total number of tons of rock and soil that construction of the new trail and installation of snowmaking would require.

The second concern involves what effects the proposed increase in snowmaking would have on the watershed of the Big Wood River and Warm Springs Creek?

Joe Miczulski, leader of the Forest Service team analyzing the plan, said his understanding is that "as far as cubic yards (of earth to be removed), a calculation was not made by the contractor (SE Group) hired by Sun Valley Co. because that calculation would strictly be a gross estimate."

Miczulski went on to say that "until you start cutting and grading, the features of the ridge make it very difficult to come up with a calculation."

However, "everything on that project will be balanced"—meaning rock that is removed would then be used to level and raise other areas on the trail, Miczulski said.

"It's my understanding that nothing will need to be brought down the mountain," he said.

Adam likes the idea of full development.

"I prefer that if they develop Guyer Ridge that they should clear the trees and make a full run out of it, complete with snowmaking (Alternative 2)," he said.

The question of the cumulative effects additional snowmaking would have on the watershed and on Sun Valley Co.'s water rights is somewhat complex.

In short, increasing snowmaking from the current 398 acres to 541 acres (Alternative 2) or to 507 acres (Alternative 3) will not increase Sun Valley Co.'s maximum instantaneous diversion rate. The current system of pumps can only pull a certain amount of water at any given time, said Miczulski, and this would not change with an increase in the acreage of snowmaking.

On a long-term scale, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement states Alternative 2 would increase the total acres of snowmaking by roughly 36 percent. This would require approximately 157 additional acre-feet of water, bringing the total to 595 acre-feet—a figure well below Sun Valley Co.'s current licensing agreement with the Idaho Department of Water Resources that allows it to use 711.9 acre feet.

Alternative 3 calls for approximately 27 percent additional snowmaking acreage and would require an additional 119 acre-feet of water, totaling roughly 557 acre-feet. Again, the number is below Sun Valley's current allotment.

The public comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement began with the publication of notice in the Federal Register on Monday, March 5.

Following the 45-day comment period, which is set to expire April 9, "we look at the comments and determine if we've done adequate analysis and look to see if additional research is needed," Nelson said.

The subsequent step will be called a "response to comment period," which provides both the Forest Service and BLM the opportunities to answer questions and concerns. If no glaring public concerns remain, a finalized analysis will be conducted and, subsequently, a final Environmental Impact Statement will be written.

The final EIS includes separate records of decision from both the Forest Service and BLM regarding findings on how the master plan will affect their respective lands. The land that makes up Bald Mountain is divided between the Forest Service (1,969 acres) and the BLM (1,356 acres).

It's regarding that point that Wally Huffman, general manager of Sun Valley Co., voiced concern during a meeting Feb. 26 over whether or not the two agencies will be on the same page when it comes time for their decisions.

"We are working in conjunction with the Forest Service during every step of the process," Kurtz said.

Nelson agreed.

"We really don't anticipate that happening," he said.

Once the final records of decision have been filed, the public has an additional review period during which appeals can be filed. Following this, decisions are final, and the agencies will move forward with issuance of authorization for the proposal.

There is no definitive date set for when a decision will be made, however. Miczulski believes a decision could come in early fall 2007 if there are no appeals or late fall if there are appeals.

During the public comment period, "it is really important if people have questions that they have them answered, and if there are concerns, they bring them to our attention," Kurtz said.

To get involved

- Copies of the draft environmental impact statement are available in a number of formats. Hard copies may 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.

- 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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