The Old Way Is the Best Way

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 station—a silviculturist, District Ranger, trail crews, and others who ensure the District resources are maintained and the public is safe. But the other cowboys seen milling about have a very different role, one that exists 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.

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 young 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.

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.

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