Up high in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, there’s an abandoned metal snow fence — well, there used to be. A diverse group of volunteers joined a team of mules and horses to haul tons of rebar out of the backcountry last month. Pack strings are one of the few ways to get heavy work done in protected wilderness areas, but their future is uncertain.
Mountain Boy Basin, just east of the summit of Independence Pass, is a popular spot for backcountry skiing. But Karin Teague, director of the Independence Pass Foundation, said there’s been a serious hazard lurking beneath the snow for 50 years.
“What is amazing to me is no one has yet impaled themselves skiing off of Mountain Boy ‘cause it’s a very popular place to ski and there’s 3-foot, 1-inch thick rebar sticking out of the ground," she said. "But not anymore. It’s now gone.”
That rebar was left over from a fence built in the early 1960s to manage snow drifts, and Teague and a diverse, rotating cast of volunteers have been working to clear it out of the backcountry for three years. It poses a danger not only to skiers, but also to the many species of wildlife that use this area year-round. Plus, there’s a philosophical reason for cleaning up this man-made mess.
“Mountain Boy is pretty special place," Teague said. "It's wild and pristine wilderness.”
She was referring to designated wilderness, the highest form of protection the government gives to public lands. As part of that designation, mechanized and motorized equipment is not allowed. This keeps the area primitive, and also makes for a challenge when there's heavy work. But there is a solution: A pack string of mules and horses.
“The horses, the mules, (are) still the way to go on so many jobs,” said Glenn Ryan, who heads up a regional team for the U.S. Forest Service.
He led five animals on the steep hike in the Mountain Boy basin, where a crew of inmate workers from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility loaded saddlebags with rebar.
“The majority of places we're in, you couldn't even get a helicopter in there," Ryan said. "There’s no way in heck you’re getting an ATV in here.”
Ryan and the inmates strapped the huge saddlebags filled with metal fencing across the animals’ flanks. It took at least two people to load up each mule. The mules and horses can carry about 120 pounds down the steep hillsides — as long as its balanced equally on each side.
Over three days, the pack string hauled out six tons of rebar; that’s about equivalent to the weight of an elephant.
The mules have been in high demand; their region covered five states. It took three years to get them for this project, and it came just in time.
“This is the last 10 days. That’s it," Ryan said. "I just don’t know how this stuff is going to get done anymore.”
The team has been relocated to the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, and at least for next year, it’s no longer available for regional work.
This is a big blow for the Independence Pass Foundation.
“It’s going to be a huge loss for us and organizations like ours," Teague said. "I don’t know what the substitute is.”
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the regional team has been helpful in big projects; mules can carry about twice as much weight as a human. But he said it’s not a huge loss. He wasn’t directly involved in the decision to move the team, but he understands it. It’s a question of money — and of changing times.
“We’re tightening our budgets everywhere, and that’s just part of it. And even if we had the money, we don’t need that," Fitzwilliams said. "It’s not as great a need as it once was.”
Fitzwilliams plans to use private outfitters for future projects that might have otherwise requested the regional team, and he said another option is to use human power instead of horsepower.
Teague is no stranger to that. Before the mules got here, she rallied a village effort to gather all the fencing material from across the Mountain Boy ridge and stack it in a long pile on the saddle.
“That was all pulled and carried by the inmate work crew from Buena Vista, by kids, by volunteers, by Jaywalker Lodge folks, by my board members, by anyone we could get up into Mountain Boy who were willing," Teague said.
Even with that years-long, team effort, there’s still more than 1,000 pounds of rebar waiting to be hauled out, so it’ll take more time and more - human - volunteers to return this wild place to true wilderness.