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N.Y. Fire Tower Divides Environmentalists

One group wants to save the Adirondacks landmark, which offers views of pristine nature and scarred lands. Others want to raze it.

March 28, 2004|Michael Gormley | Associated Press Writer

ALBANY, N.Y. — The Mt. Adams fire tower offers a commanding view of two extremes of nature and industry. To the north rise two dozen of New York's highest, most pristine Adirondack peaks. To the south, mining's deep scars gouge the landscape.

Today, the future of the historic tower is a divide for environmentalists.

One group is calling for the Essex County area to be declared a wilderness -- the state's most protective land designation, which would require the tower to be removed. Another seeks wild forest designation, which would save the tower and its inspirational perch.

Bill Starr sees fire towers from a different perspective. As one of New York's last "fire watchers," he hauled 50-pound packs with a week's worth of provisions up five miles of mountain to fire towers like this one, where he would often go three weeks without seeing anyone.

"The fire towers have become part of the natural history in the areas. They've become landmarks and they have become symbols of a local community," he said.

As deputy director for New York state in the Forest Fire Lookout Assn., Starr is applying to get the Mt. Adams tower on the National Register of Historic Places. That would require the preservation of the facility, which closed in 1970.

Ultimately, the state will decide the tower's future when it takes control of the land around it.

The Mt. Adams tower was built in 1912 with lumber hauled up by horses. It was rebuilt in 1917 as a steel structure 47 feet high. That year a fire watcher on the tower was credited with saving a huge swath of wilderness from forest fire. Volunteers were battling the blaze within two hours. Fewer than five acres were lost.

"If it went undetected, it could have burned for a day or two before anybody could have pinpointed the location," Starr said. "In that location of the forest ... it could have easily exploded into a major conflagration."

The tower's intended purpose, however, has long since passed; solitary lookouts have been replaced by light aircraft to watch for forest fires. But the tower remains a popular, if unofficial, stop for hikers, who after a two-mile climb rising 1,800 feet can scale the iron ladder, step over a few missing stairs and take in a unique view.

The tower is on the Tahawus parcel of the central Adirondacks, south of Lake Placid. The state this year announced its intention to join with private agencies to acquire about 10,000 acres of forest in the High Peaks region of the Adirondack Park. Most of it, including a lake, has been privately owned since 1826.

"It's an amazing moment for a lot of folks to see this incredible protected area and then an area that has been massively changed," said Peter Bauer of the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. "There is no fire tower where you get so close to the high peaks ... the amazing view alone makes this fire tower worth preserving."

But even some avid outdoorsmen don't want the tower protected.

"The idea is not to place structures that would attract large numbers of people to the wilderness," said John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council. "In a wilderness area, recreation becomes secondary to protecting the natural resources."

The area is home to the long-tailed shrew and the rock vole, a small vegetarian mole. A large pile of boulders broke away from a cliff ages ago and moss, ferns and trees have grown in the rubble north of the tower to create a tunneled habitat.

"It's one of the few areas in the forest preserve still capable of hosting them," Sheehan said.

A "wild forest" designation by the state would lead to maintaining the tower, which would require some vehicle use. That, Sheehan said, would be the beginning of the end for that wilderness.

Today, 34 of the Adirondacks' 57 fire towers survive; many have been restored. Other historic fire towers have been saved in the 6-million-acre Adirondack State Park. The Mt. Arab tower near Tupper Lake, the Azure Mountain tower north of Paul Smiths, and the Snowy Mountain and Blue Mountain towers in the town of Indian Lake have been preserved on non-wilderness tracts.

The state has time to hear the arguments. The Tahawus deal won't likely be completed until late this year.

"While we have yet to acquire the property, we are certainly aware of the interest in preserving and maintaining the fire tower on Mt. Adams," said Michael Fraser of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Starr said those who grew up with the towers are watching.

"Local residents over the years have connections with an individual fire tower, be it a family member or prominent member of the community who used to work at that fire tower," said Starr, 45.

"Now they want their children to experience the same thing."

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