The Recreational Aviation Foundation grants funds to preserve, maintain and create airstrips for recreational access. These funds are typically used to purchase building materials, with much of the labor provided by RAF volunteers.
But in a twist, a RAF grant was recently used to hire a team of mules and experienced mule skinners to restore Montana’s Schafer Forest Service Airstrip (8U2).
The wilderness airstrip needed serious work this summer, according to a grant request submitted by RAF Montana Liaison Scott Newpower.
Because Schafer airstrip lies entirely within a wilderness area, motorized equipment is not permitted. So in August, a team of mules was trailed in to plow and grade a 2,500-foot parallel turf runway that had fallen into disuse.
The project reestablishes an old proven management plan of two parallel turf runways. Using one runway for several years, then switching to the alternate, allows the “fallow” land to recover its health and natural appearance, according to RAF officials.
Teresa Byrd, reporter for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Hungry Horse News was on site during the work, covering the picturesque and anachronistic task.
“The project has been in the works for the last five years and finally materialized this summer through the collaboration of the Forest Service, a group of volunteers, the Montana Pilots Association and the Recreational Aviation Foundation,” Byrd reported.
According to Byrd, Jeremy Rust, Wilderness Trails Manager for the Spotted Bear Ranger District, and Guy Zoellner, Wilderness Trails Manager for Big Prairie in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, took on management of the project.
“The two also recruited the help of volunteers Fred Flint and Colin Milone, both seasoned packers with decades of work experience for the Forest Service,” she added.
Newpower was in frequent contact with Forest Service personnel, and monitored the work as well, RAF officials noted.
Rust told Byrd that he appreciates the airstrip for the recreational possibilities it opens up for the public.
“The airstrip allows this area of remote wilderness to become just another trailhead for recreators to base out of,” Rust said.
“The RAF is pleased to have obtained funding from Congress allowing the USFS to preserve the quality of special places like Schafer,” RAF Chairman John McKenna said. “If it requires a team of mules, we see that simply as part of airstrip improvement. I’m just glad I’m not the one spending all day in the dust behind a team of mules on a hot August day.”
Byrd’s story includes photos and descriptions of the antique machinery and how the fellows restored all of it for rugged service, in spite of quirks typical of hundred-year-old iron and wood.
Although the men behind the harness referred to the pair of mules as “Bella” and “Bull,” Newpower continues to refer to the team as “Beech” and “Cessna.”