Burnt trees fall on the trails, because there’s no plant life to hold them in the soil, says Chris Eyer, a small businessman in Western Montana known as Muledragger.
Yellow flowers of invasive knapweed blanket the shallow riverbeds of the White and Flathead rivers. In fire-scarred flats of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, where stumps of trees covered by scaly black bark make surreal sculpture gardens, pine trees are growing back. But they are choking out the slow-growth hardwood saplings beneath them.
And the trails dwindle a little every year and get a little less safe, even as the number of people using them increases. The Big Prairie Ranger Station that had a staff of 20 now is down to six.
“Change is constant in the wilderness,” Eyer says. “Heraclitus said, ‘You can never stop in the same river twice.’ When you let that percolate more in your mind, you see how all these different forces are influencing each other. What we do and how we function in the world matters.”
Sometimes, people mistake size for power. Eyer is a small businessman a long way from Washington, D.C. He employs six people in his small businesses: electrical contracting in the winter and mule packing in the summer. Because the wilderness is closed to all traffic, the only way to get anything in is to lead chains of pack mules over the mountains – which is where mule packing, “muledragging,” comes in
Eyer and other friends are worried about the changes in the Bob Marshall, a two-million acre complex of protected land in Western Montana, and America’s responses to those changes. Under the Trump Administration, the Forest Service funding to maintain the wilderness is increasingly going to fire suppression, including timber harvesting (seen by some as boon to timber companies), and away from the Forest Service staff who man the stations, clear the narrow trails and respond to emergencies.
“The rangers don’t actually have enough funding to get the staff, and the packing staff, to get the trail crews they need,” says Eyer. “You have to have a base of highly skilled dedicated people back there.”
“I want to advocate for them.”
His Instagram account about the life of a man of the West – he recently shared the story of a horse that died in his arms — has more than 20,000 followers – and more importantly, his years of packing mules over the 10,000-foot peaks of the Northwestern Rockies gives him credibility among an even wider group of influencers, which has a combined total of 3 million followers.
In 2018, with the Forest Service facing cuts at Big Prairie Ranger Station in the heart of the Bob Marshall, Eyer jumped on Instagram and called some people, and started making a little bit of a stink, which seems to have made a difference. Montana and the outdoorspeople of the West are an important constituency for Republicans.
in 2019, he plans more.
The Bob Marshall Is An Old Friend, Acting Strange
The people who make their livelihood in the Bob take a long view of it. Timber harvesting is one tool for managing the wilderness; and hardly anybody you talk to wants to go deep into politics or criticism of the Administration. But the increasing number of fires is a fact of life, and a change in technology – ultralightweight rafts – is bringing more people to the wilderness.
Drifting down the pristine Flathead River is an ideal pastime in July or August in Montana, and if you aim to fish the famous cutthroat trout, so much the better. No one knows how many people use the Bob Marshall, but it is likely in the tens of thousands.
The other change is slower in the making, but more momentous: The increasing number of fires. An average of 72,400 wildfires cleared an average of 7 million acres of U.S. land each year since 2000, double the number of acres scorched by wildfires in the 1990s, according to a statistics cited by National Geographic.
Between 1995 and 2017, according to High Country News, fire suppression went from 16% to more than 50% of the Forest Service budget. Scientists say a combination ofclimate change and poor management of the forests decades ago is to blame for the increasing number and severity of forest fires. In part to help control the fires by removing fuel (trees), the Trump Administration has allowed more cutting in the wilderness. (The move has also been seen as a boon to the timber industry).
The federal Wildernesses were created in 1964, a more amenable time, by a coalition of hunters and environmentalists“for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.”
I visited last year with my two daughters, riding in with a famous Montana outfitting family, the Cheffs. (You can read about that adventure here). We liked it so much we went back this year.
By law, you can’t have as much as a wheelbarrow in the Bob, much less a car. There are no roads. The one way in is on horseback or foot, and the only way to get anything in is on the back of a mule, which is where Muledragger and other packers some in. The crews who maintain the trails work with hand-held saws.
“I’m a huge believer of public lands. I want people to use them so they are protected,” Eyer says. “But I’m becoming increasingly concerned about keeping them accessible. There are sections of trail that either need to be rerouted or that need a lot of work.
The crews that take care of the Bob have their headquarters at the historic Big Prairie Ranger Station, which we visited this year and last year.
Ranger Guy Zoellner offered us Tang, cookies – Oreos and Nutter Butters, and a tour of the Big Prairie. Some of the buildings date to before World War II. One of them is a barn-like storage shed built by WWII conscientious objectors who were Mennonite farm boys sent out – untrained and untested — to take the place of the professional firefighters who went to war.
Legend has it the farm boys were among the best there ever were.
I got interested in the Mennonite smokejumpers because I’d lived in Lancaster, and interviewed a handful of them, who were well into the 80s by the time I met them. “I remember,” one of them told me. “The first few jumps out of a Ford TriMotor, I swear my toes touched my knees. It was like my shins turned to water.”
It was volunteer work. They never got paid, though politicians made mealymouth promises over the years. But, bringing their farm skills to bear, they left a little of Pennsylvania behind, building a cupola-topped storage shed for parachutes to hang, in the tongue-and-groove style that you find in Pennsylvania barns. During both of our visits, I’ve admired the woodcraft and the courage, of those boys and all the smokejumpers.
The wilderness tends to bring out the best in people.
Zoellner showed us a table carved by one of the trail crew, who found a tree felled by fire, mounted it to dry for two years, and then hewed the wood for the table.
“This was volunteer,” he said. Last year, we’d seen a volunteer mason in, repairing the fireplace.
Zoeller has a manifold job, which includes keeping the trails in his territory open, maintaining the historic structures, and helping an injured hikers or riders. He’s even gotten creative with the fundraising, making a proposal to AT&T to fund the restoration of an old phone line – because that would have meant funding for trail maintenance that runs alongside the line. (The idea crashed on AT&T’s desire, according to Zoellner, to put up a billboard talking about the project – you can’t have billboards near the wilderness.)
Eight years ago, he said, there were more than 20 people at the station. In 2017, there were 16. In 2019, there were scheduled to be four. Eyer’s intervention might have saved two positions: Zoellner got by with six this year.
He shows us a map of one of the fires burning in the wilderness and wonders aloud about how to clear hikers and rafters from its path if it takes a turn.
“Anything you can do is appreciated,” he says to me.
Eyer, the Muledragger, turns out to be an unlikely hero with public leverage. “I took a trip with professional photographers,” he said. “And I brought along people with large social media followings. We worked, cut trail. I’ve gathered up the images I need.”
He listed a number: Forest Mankins, James Chapman, Elias Carlson, Lianna Spooner, Jenni Lowe-Anker “I’m additionally leveraging my friend Conrad Anker and Ben Masters,” he said.
In early November, he plans to launch a social media campaign with an ask for people to send emails to the chief of the forest service, the head of region one, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and a set of U.S. representatives. With 3 million followers between the set of influencers he’s amassed, he hopes to generate 80,000 emails, that say something like this: “As concerned citizens, we realize that we are promoting more people to use the public lands. We just need the funding to get caught up and keep these areas accessible.”
Whether the campaign works to restore any of the funding remains to be seen. But Eyer hopes that the wilderness is safely accessible for more people. He’s seen what it does, and how it helps people relate across divisions that seem insignificant. Once in the wilderness, he says, the majority of people can let go and settle in. “The longer we stay out of the wild places, the more disconnected we become from ourselves,” he says. “A lot of those differences turn out to be more imagined than real.”
This story was originally published on Elizabeth MacBride’s Forbes column.