Two U.S. Forest Service packers collaborate to develop a program that preserves California’s packing tradition while providing valuable assets to the state.
Before pioneers rushing for gold carved out the California hills, travelers used mules to carry them into the western territories. Today, mules remain a vital and necessary mode of transportation for U.S. Forest Service packers and other workers, whether the mule is used to carry supplies in to trail-clearing crews or to assist with wildland fire control operations.
In recent years, USFS packers, led by Wilderness Trails Supervisor and Region 5 Pack Stock Coordinator Michael Morse, assisted in fire operations for wildland events, in addition to performing their day-to-day duties of supporting operations in nearly 5.5 million acres of national lands.
To better handle the variety of situations faced by both USFS pack stock and their handlers on the job, Morse established the Pack Stock Center for Excellence. Morse, a 45-year veteran stockman in the USFS, and Lee Roeser, another longtime USFS packer in the Sierra Nevada with 18 years in the Forest Service, started with educational and training center in 2013. The men lead a team of seven packers and approximately 120 head of stock that support 5.5 million acres of wilderness across the USFS Pacific Southwest Region. One of the center’s directives is to use primitive or non-mechanized tools to assist with operations, meaning mules are priority.
“We have a Forest Service directive to minimize mechanized equipment when possible, so we are the alternative work crew now,” says Morse, who works in the Mammoth Ranger District in the Inyo National Forest in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada. “But one of our primary jobs is to support the California Conservation Corp with putting [trail-clearing] crews in the backcountry during the summer. The other thing Lee and I do is travel to California for stock training and special projects. People are amazed at what we can use these mules for, and they haven’t seen them [in these areas] in years.”
Though fighting fires brought the program much needed publicity and recent budget support, it is only one facet of how the mules and stockmen keep the Western wilderness open for users. Morse and Roeser hope the Center of Excellence preserves a packing tradition that runs deep through California’s wildlands history.
Finding Common Ground
More than 2,000 mules and 300 to 400 packers traversed the California forests and mountain terrain when the USFS was formed in 1905. At that time, the Forest Service was responsible for roughly 1.2 million acres, but today that area extends to 5.5 million acres. And the resources to service the trails for those that use them dwindled.
“Traditionally, California has had a strong pack mule program,” says Roeser. “My family were packers and I was born into it. I was in commercial packing and ran an outfitting business until joining the Forest Service 18 years ago. My wife still runs our pack outfit.”
Through the years, Roeser crossed trail paths with Morse, who began working with pack stock when he was 15 years old at a summer resort.
“I was hired as an hour-ride guide at a resort and it developed into a packing job by the time I was 18,” Morse recalls. “I ran into some Forest Service crews in a canyon and became convinced I could make more working for the government. That was 1972. I’ve had the opportunity to pack with the Forest Service, build trails for the Pacific Crest Trail and work on the Tevis Cup trail. I’ve been in the Mammoth Ranger District my whole career.”
Kindred spirits that each understood that a mule’s respect was worth its weight in gold, Roeser and Morse gravitated toward working together. Their goal is to preserve a shrinking packing program.
In 2013, the Pack Stock Center of Excellence was born with the mission of continuing the traditional tools used for wilderness management. In that vein, Morse and Roeser became not simply packers, but also mulemanship teachers, outreach program coordinators and ambassadors to the public.
Striving for Excellence
To help assuage that fear, the center coordinates annual trainings for Forest Service personnel that may come in contact with the mules, such as firefighters.
“For instance 400 or 500 personnel every year attend a fire refresher in Porterville, California.” Roeser says. “We are training wilderness ethics and pack stock use. It is gratifying to introduce the fire crews to the mules. While the crews aren’t necessarily going to be packing, they are our eyes and ears on a fire. They’ll monitor and interpret radio traffic so we can be well informed of fire behavior. We have specific fire personnel that ride along with us.”
The main use of mules during a fire is to supply camps on its fringes. If mules can bring in food, water and supplies, then helicopters are free for use dropping water on active parts of the fire. Roeser says that one unique element to their mule training is introducing the stock to helicopters.
“There are times when helicopters and stock are working together on a fire. A lot of it is on-the-job training, but our stock facility in Bishop is right next to an airport where there’s a lot of helicopter testing,” he says. “We start a young mule with seasoned stock to help the animals adapt.”
Many of the fire personnel express interest in becoming part of the packing program. Though some do transfer, many can’t make the special connection needed to work with mules.
“A trainee needs to adapt to mules,” Roeser explains. “It’s more than training, it’s building trust and a relationship. Michael and I have used mules all our lives so we are really attached. Mules bring a quality to the table that seems right in a wilderness setting, and they never let us down.”
Recent funding for the packing program is a result of the successes seen during California’s wildfires. While it’s an appreciated surge, the program is still in need.
“Trail crews and wilderness rangers are our duty,” Morse says. “Even though we are getting funding now, it is not what is needed for the future. It was out of necessity we developed the Center of Excellence to save the packing program.”
Packers like Morse and Roeser are more comfortable facing a desolate mountain trail than a crowd of excited people, yet the crowds are vital to their survival. Next to the volume of cheers for the iconic Smokey Bear, the pack teams drew thunderous applause during their walk along the 2019 Rose Parade hosted by the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, California. It is but one of many appearances the mules make to garner attention to their efforts.
“The Forest Service mule is right there with Smokey as an ambassador of the program,” Roeser says. “Everybody loves the mules. They were there at the inception of the Forest Service and they’re still here today. That says something about the practicality of the mules and how they fit the mission.”
Morse agrees, stating the mules are a great introduction for people unaware of the Forest Service.
“When people come to meet the mules we have an opportunity to talk about the backcountry,” he says. “We don’t tell enough people how successful these animals are and what we can do with them, but we need to. The mules and Smokey—that is our history. It is so important to us not to lose that history to modernization.”
This article was published in the June 2019 issue of Western Horseman. This summer, Morse and Roeser are both leading pack teams to assist with fire emergency in California. Morse is currently on the Red Salmon Complex Fire (with seven other pack strings ) in Northern California. Roeser is working on the SQF Complex Fire (with two pack strings) in southern part of the state.