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Friday, July 9, 2004


Brown Baldy trees part of natural process

Sun Valley master plan to address forest health issues, too

Express Staff Writer

Thick stands of Douglas fir are as much a defining characteristic of Bald Mountain as the ski trails that weave among the old pine trees.

Thatís why Sun Valley Co. and the U.S. Forest Service are working together in an ongoing effort to maintain the health of the mountainís forests. There are, however, several natural challenges to overcome.

Pine-tree-eating beetles, a natural part of the ecosystem, are at work in the forests on Bald Mountain. Though they are not at epidemic levels like beetles in the nearby Sawtooth Valley, ongoing drought and the relative old age of the forest are making the trees more susceptible. Express photo by David N. Seelig

While mountain pine beetles are invading the Sawtooth Valley, killing vast stands of lodgepole pine trees as they go, several native species are at work on the flanks of Bald Mountain, too. The Douglas fir beetle and a parasite called dwarf mistletoe are killing many old, drought-stricken trees on the world-famous ski mountain and in nearby forests.

"Change occurs there, too, just like everywhere else," said Jim Rineholt, a forester with the Sawtooth National Forest.

Rineholt said the Doug fir beetle has the capability of flaring up like the Sawtooth Valleyís mountain pine beetles, but so far has not. He pointed out that the processes, whether on Bald Mountain or in the Sawtooth Valley, are natural.

But Bald Mountain is a year-round recreation site that gets a little special attention.

"I think the mutual goal is to maintain a vegetative diversity on the mountain, to start growing new stands as these older stands start to unravel," said Kurt Nelson, the Sawtooth National Forestís Ketchum District ranger. "We want to try to keep Bald Mountain from becoming completely bald."

Nelson said Bald Mountain is designated for high-intensity recreation in winter and summer. One of the objectives, therefore, is to establish a healthy population of trees for aesthetic reasons.

The Douglas fir beetle infests and kills Douglas fir trees in western regions of North America, but it normally kills small groups of trees. During outbreaks, 100-dead-tree groups are not uncommon. Damage is usually greatest in dense stands of mature Douglas fir, and many of the stands on Bald Mountain are aging and dense.

Dwarf mistletoes are small, leafless, parasitic flowering plants that commonly infect Douglas fir and lodgepole pine trees, among others. Fascinatingly, the parasites shoot seeds at speeds up to 60 mph. Infection starts when the sticky seeds come into contact with a suitable host tree.

As the seed germinates, it grows into the bark and underlying woody tissue. The parasite produces root-like structures called sinkers that steal water and nutrients from the host. Trees infected by dwarf mistletoe often look only half-dead.

"Eventually, the tops will slowly decay and die, and theyíll hang on like that for years and years," Rineholt said.

Both the Douglas fir beetle and dwarf mistletoe are at work on Bald Mountain, where most of the forest consists of Douglas fir trees. There are also lodgepole, whitebark, subalpine fir and aspen trees.

"The Doug fir beetle is starting to kick up a little bit, but the biggest threat up there is probably the mistletoe on the Doug fir," Rineholt said. "Itís been up there for years and years. The only way to get rid of it would be to do a burn or a clear cut, which wouldnít be acceptable."

Sun Valley Co. is aware of the threats to Bald Mountain, which it leases from the Forest Service. The company is incorporating a vegetation management plan as part of its ongoing 20-year master planning process, but the final document has not yet been submitted to federal land managers. The public is still in the dark on plans to manage the ski hillís forests.

"They have contracted with a consultant out of Montana to look at the previous vegetation management plan and assess it for 20 years later," Nelson said.

But work has been ongoing in the forests of Bald Mountain for 30 years.

The Forest Service was involved in a small logging operation in the 1980s, Nelson said. It has also worked to thin some stands and plant various species of new trees.

But to get a grasp on something like the dwarf mistletoe, more drastic measures might be needed, Rineholt said. Entire sections of forest between ski trails could be cut down and re-grown.

"But Sun Valley doesnít want to do that because people will be skiing everywhere," he said.

Also, the young trees would likely be cut off by ski edges passing over.

The future will become clearer when Sun Valley submits its management plan to the Forest Service this summer. Nelson said the plan, which will include much more than forest health issues, will be released for public review sometime this fall.

"The vegetation master plan is an important component, but the master development plan should look at development over the next 10 to 15 year period," Nelson said. "That will go through the public review and comment process."


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