Casey Burns is a modern cowboy. A straw Stetson perches on his head as we rattle across the dirt roads dividing the pastures we pass. A beaded necklace floats high on his thick neck, moving in rhythm with his deep booming voice. Dark blue Wranglers and cowboy boots caked in spring mud contrast a freshly ironed button-up shirt.
My colleague Hannah and I are on Casey's home turf, a 40-minute drive from our offices in Missoula. Brown stubbled grass and leafless cottonwoods stretch out under a pale blue sky on this cool April morning as we bounce up to the "Donkey Pasture."
Hannah and I work for the nonprofit National Forest Foundation. We'd convinced the bosses to let us spend a day learning about the Ninemile Remount Depot and Ranger Station where Casey works for the U.S. Forest Service as the manager of the Wildlands Training Center and the Ninemile Pack Train.
The Ninemile's historic collection of buildings is part typical Forest Service ranger district, part tourist destination, and part working ranch. A standard complement of Forest Service employees works at the stationa silviculturist, district ranger, trail crews and others—but Casey and the other cowboys we see milling about are different. Their roles exist only in this corner of western Montana.
More than 200 government-owned mules and horses board here each winter. These mules, and the horses that help wrangle them, make up the Northern Region pack train—a collection of pack animals used to maintain the vast wilderness areas that stretch across Montana and north Idaho. Each summer, these mules are loaded with food, lumber, water, crosscut saws and myriad other tools and packed into the Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat, the Great Bear, the Selway Bitterroot and the other sprawling wilderness areas managed by Region One of the Forest Service.
"That's Big Mike," Casey says as he points to a huge brown mule. "Prozac, Hiram, Rudy, Bones, Preacher, Red, Ben," he continues as we bounce across the pasture. Ranch hand Marc Pengali stands on the back of a flatbed pickup truck slicing orange twine from rectangular bales of hay and chunking off bits of the green-yellow alfalfa onto the ground. The line of animals stretches to the far end of the pasture. It's feeding time and Marc and his young partner, Eli Indreland, are doling out rations in a tight choreography. The animals munch contentedly or nose up to our SUV to check out the strangers. Casey tells us it takes 400 tons of hay to feed the animals all winter. They raise about 320 tons on site during the summer, cutting, baling and storing it under an immense shed. The rest they buy.
The Mule Era
In the 1910s and 1920s, the Forest Service relied on horses and mules for nearly all aspects of managing its vast territory. Roads were few and far between, and the Great Burn of 1910 was still fresh in the agency's mind. Rangers rode horses across their huge districts and mules packed in fire-fighting tools, supplies and rations for the growing wildland fire-fighting efforts that had become a primary focus of the Forest Service.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- Cowboy Eli Indreland works a horse during a training session at the Ninemile ranch.
In those early years, the agency relied on hiring the pack animals it needed from local farmers and ranchers, but by the late 1920s, tractors and trucks did most of the farm's hauling, plowing and haying, and quality animals were scarce. Recognizing a need for self-provision, the Region One office of the Forest Service leased a one-square-mile, run-down ranch in the Ninemile Valley, and the Ninemile Remount Depot was born. Its primary goal: supplying the agency with a reliable supply of sturdy, mountain-ready mules and horses for fighting fires.
Three years later, the Forest Service purchased the ranch, and with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Remount Depot was transformed from a run-down work-in-progress into a shiny white-washed showpiece. The "CCC boys" worked hard and fast. Bunk houses, ranger offices, tack sheds and a huge barn appeared almost overnight. Irrigation lines, fences and stock animals followed nearly as fast.
While mules and horses proved invaluable to the Forest Service during the 1920s and '30s, by the mid-1940s, the agency was ready to fight fires with more modern technology. A decade or so of successful experimentation and a sudden surplus of planes capable of hauling men and gear into remote mountainous terrain following World War II ushered in the era of smokejumpers. Mules still played an important role in wildland firefighting, since they hauled out the gear smokejumpers used to extinguish fires, but on July 1, 1953, 23 years to the day after the Forest Service first leased the shabby ranch that became the Ninemile Remount Depot, Region One issued a press release that began: