The Payette National Forest is home to eight species of conifer trees. At the lower to mid elevations, from about 3500 to 6000 feet, you will find ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. At mid elevations, from about 4500 to 6500 feet, grand fir and western larch can be found. Above 6500 feet to around 8000 feet, the main tree species are lodgepole pine, Englemann spruce, and subalpine fir. On the highest ridges above 7500 feet one will find whitebark pine.
The grass and shrub communities are dominated by Idaho fescue, bluebunch wheatgrass, stiff sagebrush, mountain big sagebrush, and bitterbrush.
A variety of wildflowers and other vascular plants also grow on the Forest. Thirty-eight of these species are so rare that we are tracking and protecting their habitat. Habitats for the threatened species, Macfarlane's four-o'clock, occurs in the Hell's Canyon area. Habitat for fifteen sensitive species of milkvetch, onion, camas, phlox, saxifrage, and monkeyflower occur from the grasslands of Weiser to the high, subalpine forests east of McCall. Over 1,500 plants grow and bloom from early March until late September whether it be in the river canyonlands or the alpine meadows.
One hundred million years ago, the formation of the Idaho Batholith gave the Payette NF much of it's present character. This granitic body of rock, the largest in the United States, underlies much of the Forest. Slick Rock, east of McCall, provides a massive example of the batholith's composition. The volcanic Columbia River Basalts then flowed across the western portion of the area about 17 million years ago. Horse Mountain Lookout and Kinney Point Lookout are excellent viewpoints within this volcanic terrain. During the Pleistocene Era, various portions of the area were modified by advancing and receding glaciers which conformed the three Payette Lakes and the many of the nearby alpine lakes found nestled high in horse-shoe-shaped basins called cirques. The Lick Creek, Hazard Creek, and Warren Wagon Roads wind through beautiful areas of extensive glaciation, as does the Loon Lake Trail. These complex geological processes have contributed to the formation of many valuable mineral deposits. These include gold, silver, mercury, antimony, tungsten, quartz crystal, and various rare-earth minerals.
Rivers and streams on the Payette National Forest drain into two of Idaho's major rivers - the Snake River and the Salmon River. The major Snake River subbasins on the Forest include the Weiser River and North Fork Payette River. Both of these tributaries enter the Snake River above Brownlee, Oxbow, and Hells Canyon Reservoirs.
Salmon River major subbasins on the Forest include the Little Salmon River, South Fork Salmon River, and Big Creek (a tributary to the Middle Fork Salmon River). The Salmon River subbasins are anadromous drainages with steelhead and salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean to spawn. Watersheds on the Forest provide high quality waters for fish habitat, recreation kayaking and boating, irrigation, and domestic drinking water for municipalities.
The Payette National Forest is home to a wide array of native fishspecies, some of which are now rare and listed under the Endangered Species Act. Foremost among these are chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. The former two species are born in tributaries to the free-flowing Salmon River, spend their formative years in the Pacific Ocean, and return to their natal streams to spawn and die. Bull trout exist on the Forest as resident, fluvial, and ad fluvial forms, occupying many rivers, lakes, and streams across the Forest. Less well known occupants of the Forest that have not been listed are Pacific lamprey, with a life cycle similar to salmon and steelhead, and west slope cutthroat trout; both of these species have become somewhat restricted in distribution and abundance during recent decades.
The Payette National Forest provides habitat for approximately 300 species of mammals and birds. Deer, elk, mountain lion, bear, coyote, moose, mountain sheep, and mountain goat are among the larger forest animals. Smaller animals and birds include the river otter, snowshoe hare, marmot, osprey, and grouse. Rare species include the bald eagle, boreal owl, and whiteheaded woodpecker.