The speciality string

Mark Davis, Powell Tribune photo Jess Hicks, an assistant packer with the Shoshone National Forest, works through a packing test during a packing clinic put on by the specialty string crew for the few agencies in the west who have mules they use for backcountry maintenance.

POWELL — Winding through the backcountry trails of the Shoshone National Forest on a company steed, Jason Brengle can’t believe how fortunate he is to work in one of the few wild places left in America.

He hasn’t always been this lucky. In his 20-plus years of working for the federal government, the professional range manager has worked in national parks and forests of varying types. But none like the Shoshone, he said.

“It was the forest that brought me here,” Brengle said while preparing to freeze brand new members of the agency’s stock. “I felt like working in the wilderness was where my skills could be useful.”

Brengle, who was born and raised on a ranch in western South Dakota, runs the Shoshone’s stock program, called the specialty string. What makes the string special is its mules.

They’re a little-known asset that not only save taxpayer money, but also brings in significant revenue to the forest. Very little of the work performed by Brengle and a crew of backcountry rangers could be done without mules.

The program has been wending its way through wilderness areas of the Shoshone for the past 33 years. The string was initiated in response to the 1988 fires in and around Yellowstone National Park. More than 790,000 acres of the park’s 2.2 million acres burned (36 percent of the total acreage). But nearly 400,000 additional acres were torched in the Shoshone.

Remnants of the fire can still be seen by looking south from the Clark’s Fork Overlook off Wyo. Highway 296, or by hiking the North Fork of the Shoshone River trailhead off U.S. 14-16-20, a few miles east of Yellowstone’s East Entrance.

While the mules are rarely used in fighting fires, it’s definitely a lot easier to hike through one of the nation’s most beautiful gems thanks to their assistance on some of the hundreds of miles of backcountry trails.

Without mules, much of the work maintaining the trails and building bridges and structures would be too expensive for the Shoshone, which is always struggling to secure funding.

Soon after the Yellowstone fires, the string was put to work on trail maintenance, capable of doing what horses can’t: hauling in the tools and massive amounts of materials for construction projects in the wilderness.

More than 80 percent of the forest is inaccessible by road. The Forest Service could employ helicopters to move materials, but while faster than the mule string, the paperwork needed to use a helicopter in designated wilderness — which generally prohibits the use of motorized vehicles or even motorized chainsaws — is extensive. Even more prohibitive is the cost of flying.

“If you have to bring in helicopters to do the work, all the sudden you’ve spent more on that one project than the whole year’s budget for the mule string,” Brengle said.

The string was discontinued for a few years, he said, due to budget concerns.

“It tends to be one of the first things on the chopping block because, you know, it’s just not known how important it is.”

Soon after the program closed, projects started to come up that required a budget-friendly option mixed with the brute force and mountain savvy of a mule. The Shoshone Forest got its mules back and now has about 70 horses and mules in the stock program.

Mule strings are rare in the Forest Service. The Shoshone team is one of only three or four in the country, said Kristie Salzmann, public affairs officer for the Forest Service.

“There’s only a few places in the National Forest system that have that kind of skill set to teach other employees. We’re one of them,” Salzmann said.

Representatives from the Nebraska, Rio Grande and Bighorn national forests gathered on the South Fork last week for a training session led by Crosby Davidson, trails and wilderness manager. For two days crews learned the rare skill of correctly packing a mule. Building materials are heavy and awkward. Mules simply have more capacity for the “oddball” loads than horses, as well as the mentality for the job.

“They’re more self-preserving than a horse would be,” said Jess Hicks, assistant packer for the specialty string. “They’ll usually stay put for a while (when they get in trouble). A horse might blow up and cause a pretty big wreck.”

Hicks is working his dream job. He, too, was born and raised on a ranch and was looking for something, anything other than sitting in an office all day.

“During the summertime, we’re gone pretty much every day,” Hicks said. “We’re working weekends. Sometimes it’s pretty crazy for us. Last summer we didn’t have much off time until, pretty much, October.”

Despite the long hours, Hicks said he loves the unique job.

“It’s nice to get away from town. It’s cool country back there,” he said. “It’s what I loved to do as a kid.”

Brengle is trying to get the word out that the tools of his trade — the stock — are well worth your tax dollars.

“In this age of new technology, people forget that these types of primitive skills and the animals to do it are still needed.”

The stock program has also brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue to the forest over the years through subcontracting the string to individuals and companies looking to move materials in the backcountry areas, he added.

In 2018, for example, the mule string was shipped to Michigan to assist in getting materials into otherwise inaccessible areas to build a boardwalk for visitors seeking to hike in nature.

“We work very hard to use the funds we get efficiently and effectively,” Brengle said. “If you hear word that they’re thinking about cutting funding on something like this, get vocal if you want to keep our forest trails open. This is important work.”