According to U.S. Forest Service officials, the timberland around the Upper North Fork River looks "red and dead." The area north of Salmon near the Idaho-Montana border hasn't burned in more than 100 years, which means when the next wildfire does go ripping through, there's a high risk of it showing extreme behavior.
That fire, according to Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Charles Mark, is "inevitable."
In an effort to protect the area, Mark and his colleagues submitted a proposal to the U.S. Forest Service to be part of the Chiefs' Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership. The agency received more than 40 proposals from across the country and Mark's was one of the 15 chosen.
Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie unveiled details of the partnership at a press conference in Boise on Feb. 19. He said the Forest Service is investing $37 million this year to help the 15 nationwide projects.
The most important part of the undertaking is the collaboration among the Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and local environmental groups. While Forest Service dollars go support work on public lands, the NRCS funds will go toward helping private landowners restore their land.
"This allows us to work across a larger landscape," Bonnie said.
Mark said that the Upper North Fork River Project in Idaho's Lemhi County will focus on reducing wildfire risks. The 700-acre project will protect 41,000 acres of forest, U.S. Highway 93 corridor and surrounding communities, and the Lost Trail Ski Area. He was pleased with the collaboration needed to make the project a success.
"We're going to put prescribed fire out in the landscape, conduct treatments at the wild-and-urban interface, accomplish aquatics restoration, restore aspen and generate white bark pine," Mark said. "But it's the relationships that have been created between the local government, environmental groups, individuals, Forest Service and folks that care about the Salmon-Challis National Forest that is the most important success out of this project because it not only enables us to move forward on the Upper North Fork Project, it's the future. This is what's going to enable us to be successful in the future."
Lost Trail Ski Area, which sits on the border, has a special stake in this project. The 1,800-acre ski resort leases Forest Service land on a special use permit. Its owners, Sadie and Scott Grasser, made the decision to embark on a similar project within the boundaries of their resort in 2012.
They called it a "sanitation and salvage" project, where they removed dead, dying and diseased trees on 236 acres of the resort to reduce fire hazard, then they heavily reseeded the areas to bring back its aesthetic qualities.
Sadie fought fires for the Forest Service for 12 years, so she understands the severity of an uncontrollable fire like the one that could strike the Upper North Fork River area if fuels aren't reduced.
"It always weighs heavily on us," she told Boise Weekly. "But we feel like at this point, we have more tools in our chest now, with a good fire plan and buffers in place."
Sadie said these extreme tinder box-like conditions for the surrounding forests is a new problem that's cropped up in the past decade. She said the mountain pine beetle epidemic is to blame. When they harvested the dead trees from their resort, they found many of them were so damaged, diseased and dry that they couldn't even be sold as timber.
The Grassers came up with another idea to use the non-salable timber as biomass fuel to generate power and heat for the resort, which is completely off the grid. They're in the midst of a feasibility study for the proposal now.
Sadie said the Forest Service's Upper North Fork River Project is still several ridges away from the resort—with lots of heavy fuel between there and the ski area—but she said it would help slow a fire heading their direction.
There's evidence that this kind of forest restoration does slow wildfires. The Salmon Valley Stewardship took part in work with several other agencies and environmental nonprofits to execute the Hughes Creek Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project from 2008-2012, which included prescribed burns, timber harvesting and thinning of 13,000 acres of forest near the North Fork.
When the Mustang Complex Fire burned more than 340,000 acres along the North Fork of the Salmon River in the summer of 2012—spurring the evacuation of 400 homes—it was the Hughes Creek drainage that finally stopped the blaze.
"The fire team said, 'Finally, this is an area where we can actually fight the fire,' instead of just saying, 'Oh, onto the next ridge,'" said Gina Knudson, executive director of the Salmon Valley Stewardship.
She called the Hughes Creek project "training wheels" compared to this new project.
"We're fortunate that during this design phase, we didn't get another fire that took care of that 41,000 acres for us," she told BW.
The Upper North Fork River Project is slated to start this summer, and will take about five years to complete.