RAY BROOK - In rare move, the state Adirondack Park Agency's Board of Commissioners voted Thursday to classify land beneath fire towers on St. Regis and Hurricane mountains as historic, which would let the structures remain and be restored.
The full board gave the final approval Thursday afternoon, just hours after the APA's State Lands Committee gave the plan the go-ahead. The vote was 9-0; Commissioners Cecil Wray and William Valentino were not present. As part of this plan, another 13,500 acres of land classified primitive on Hurricane Mountain would become wilderness.
The two sites, if they receive the go-ahead from the governor's office, would become the fourth and fifth historic sites in the Adirondack Park. The three that currently exist are Camp Santanoni, a 32-acre site containing the great camp built by Robert C. Pruyn in 1892; Crown Point, which contains the ruins of Fort Crown Point and the Fort St. Frederic; and the John Brown Farm, which includes the abolitionist John Brown's farmhouse, his grave, a barn, a pond and an area his family once farmed about 65 acres.
Hurricane Mountain fire tower
(Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)
"I think the reality is that historic resources are in a different place today than they were in the 1970s," said Commissioner Richard Booth, who heads the State Lands Committee. "Society gives much greater recognition to them than they did. I think the towers are absolutely tied to the history of the woods. While there is an impact on the surrounding areas, other than aesthetic impact, it's an extremely limited impact."
The towers were slated for removal because Hurricane Mountain was classified as primitive and St. Regis Mountain is in a canoe area. Both land classifications call for fire towers to eventually be removed.
But both the St. Regis and Hurricane mountain fire towers are also listed on the state and national registers of historic places, which under state and federal historic preservation laws required the APA and DEC to look at alternatives that would allow for the preservation of the structures.
Fire towers were established to help spot forest fires, after many such blazes devastated state and private lands early in the 20th century. The state first erected a fire tower on St. Regis Mountain in 1918, and it remained in use until 1990, when it was decommissioned by the state. The Hurricane Mountain fire tower was built in 1919 and closed in 1973. Neither are currently open to the public.
"They were put up in order to protect the Forest Preserve, and now they are a symbol of that effort to protect the Preserve," said Rainbow Lake resident Pat Willis.
The decision to classify the lands as historic was met with cautious optimism from fire tower advocates, who have been battling for years with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. On the flip side, at least one environmental organization was upset by the move.
"We have a narrow interest today defeating a greater interest, which is wilderness, and the agency's actions take it away from its original intent," said Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. "(When) the wind's blowing, you hear the wind rattling on those towers. Your experience in sight (and) sound is impacted. And it's undeniable that you're in an area that's been affected by man. That is antithetical to the concept of wilderness in the agency's own definition."
"We have 18 towers that are on wild forest already," Plumley added. "You want to climb to a fire tower and enjoy that rich history, you can do that, okay. But wilderness areas are far more rare and are more vulnerable in the eastern U.S. than fire towers."
Plumley has suggested removing the fire towers and putting them in hamlets for the public to enjoy.
But for the most part, the public has been in support of letting the fire towers remain and be restored.
"I'm glad that we're being heard," said Malone resident David Petrelli, who heads Friends of the St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower. "It's been a roller coaster for the process, and we still have a lot ahead of us, obviously."
Petrelli said the friends group would like to start work on the St. Regis Mountain fire tower next summer, but for that to happen, a lot must take place.
First of all, the APA's recommendation to designate half an acre under each fire tower as historic must get the governor's approval. If that happens, the DEC would be required to create unit management plans for both sites and host public hearings on them. The APA would then have to sign off on those plans.
If that all happens, the groups would have to come up with the finances to restore the fire towers because the state is in the midst of a financial crisis. DEC Region 5 Director Betsy Lowe indicated at the meeting that funding would likely have to come from the friends groups.
Representatives from Friends of Hurricane Mountain Fire Tower have said they have already secured $10,000 to put toward materials, and Petrelli was optimistic his group would be able to raise funds for the St. Regis fire tower. Petrelli recalled that a previous fire tower restoration project on Azure Mountain was successful in bringing in money, and he thought the same would occur if another drive is started.
"Just from my experience from Azure, even if everybody interested in it just gave $20, there would be thousands and thousands of dollars. But typically people just don't give $20," Petrelli said. "I don't see the money as an issue."
One issue that would have to resolved is how much money would have to be raised. The DEC and APA have indicated that roughly $50,000 would be needed for each structure while the friends' groups have indicated they think repair costs would be in the $10,000 range.
"The $50,000 price tag is grossly exaggerated," Petrelli said. "In fact, that was based on one project down in Long Island and that was for complete taking down, moving and putting back up a fire tower. Pretty consistently, the average is between $5,000 and $15,000 for all of these similar-height fire towers that were all built within two years of each other."