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Gretna Longware before the Adirondack Park Agency

GROUP CAMPAIGNS TO SAVE HURRICANE MOUNTAIN FIRE TOWER

Unit Management Plan Looms as Excuse to Destroy Beloved Landmark

By Carol W. LaGrasse, March 2005

At the opening of the twenty-first century, the 80-year old Hurricane Mountain Fire Tower is the symbol around which local Adirondack people are rallying to preserve their cultural heritage. Although retired from use in the early 1970's, the tower is still standing and visible from Route 9N between Elizabethtown and Keene. Last year, however, local citizens discovered a state plan to dismantle the structure and ship it out of the area for display at a fairground. The citizens organized a group to protect the tower in its historic location. One of the citizens was Gretna Longware, whose husband's uncle and great uncle served for decades as forest rangers at the tower lookout.

The Hurricane Mountain tower, at an elevation of 3,694 ft., was built around 1919. Key to the fate of the fire tower is the State's classification of the area where it is located. Currently, the 13,449-acre Hurricane Mountain area in the towns of Keene, Elizabethtown, Jay and Lewis, is classified as a "Primitive Area." But that could change. The citizens group, Friends of Hurricane Mountain Fire Tower, is determined that the reclassification will allow for the fire tower to stay atop Hurricane Mountain. Their newspaper ads feature a photo of the structure mounted on barren rock reigning over a view far into the horizon. A slide show by Marty Podskoch tells the history of fire towers in general, including this threatened one. Letters, meetings, and signatures convey the urgency of local residents' concern.

At the February 10, 2005 Adirondack Park Agency (APA) meeting, Gretna Longware took advantage of the short period for public comment that the agency allows at the beginning of each monthly meeting at its office in Ray Brook in the central Adirondacks. The APA's evaluation is critical to the classification of State-owned land. Mrs. Longware read a prepared statement on behalf of Friends of Hurricane Mountain Fire Tower, objecting to the proposal to remove the structure.

Mrs. Longware is fighting procedural hurdles that are, as a rule, almost impenetrable to public participation by local residents who do not have the imprimatur of one of the powerful environmental organizations who have the APA's inner ear. The State Land Master Plan, prepared by the Department of Environmental Conservation, known as DEC, is the bible for decisionmaking about specific land uses within the approximately three million acres of land owned by the State, the Adirondack Forest Preserve. It is a zoning map for the State-owned land. The classification of land under this plan holds the key to the future of landmarks, roads, and all sorts of other human influences, including various activities that have taken place on the land for many years into the past.

The Forest Preserve is divided into "Units," such as the "Hurricane Mountain Primitive Area," each Unit classified in one of the categories of restrictions against public use, from "Wilderness," the most restrictive, to the least restrictive, "Wild Forest," with small areas designated as "Intensive Use," "Historic," or "Administrative." The State Land Master Plan, last revised in 1986, states that if the tower, "currently an essential communication link (DEC)," is "replaced by other means of fire patrol and communications, the area should be reclassified to Wilderness." Other "non-conforming uses" of observer cabins and 1.95 miles of public road would also be removed. Two miles of snowmobile trail had already been closed.

After delivering her prepared statement, Mrs. Longware, who resides in Elizabethtown, then presented a petition to the APA in opposition to removing the Hurricane Fire Tower.

"These 1750-plus signatures are from people who care about our landmarks, and who have chosen to speak out against the removal of Hurricane Tower to make the site a conforming 'Wilderness Area,'" she said. "That tower has weathered 86 years of North Country winters, has performed its duties with pride, and has been a symbol to all who see it. As one 80-plus year old Elizabethtown resident said, 'That is my Statue of Liberty. When I see it, I know I am home.'"

She reported strong support from various organizations and fire departments, resolutions from three towns and Essex County, and letters from State Assembly members Chris Ortloff and Teresa Sayward.

She had also researched DEC's fire policies. "The 2004 DEC Wildland Fire Management Plan for Preparedness Level Three calls for, 'Actions and/or considerations: Institute aerial detection flights one per day over preplanned route when necessary and implement fire tower staffing program when necessary,'" she quoted. "Also," she emphasized, "Preparedness Level Four Calls for 'Utilize aerial detection flights over preplanned route and fire tower staffing programs as necessary.'"

"Are you sure DEC really wants the fire towers down? Especially in this unstable time, they might prove very helpful in the future," she pointed out. "For those people who object to a fire tower in their view as they hike and canoe, maybe viewing a tower would remind them that careless people are one of the main causes of fire. A small fire can become a raging inferno in a very short time."

Digging into the issue of preservation of the local culture and its heritage, Mrs. Longware asked, "Why tear down something so beloved by the residents that they are willing to take over the care and maintenance? Once they are removed, they will never come back again."

"We ask that you find some way in your Unit Management Plan to preserve this historic tower," Mrs. Longware urged. "The simplest way would be to classify the land around it as historic. We feel this way about other towers. If the people care about them, they should not be denied keeping them for historic and educational purposes."

At no time during their two-day monthly deliberations, did the APA commissioners comment publicly about Mrs. Longware's speech.

The future of the Hurricane Mountain Fire Tower has been hanging for over a decade. In October 1990, APA planning staff had reported that they had "provided DEC staff with map information" on the Hurricane Primitive Area, but no action had been undertaken through that decade. Staff deliberations have produced a current report about the Hurricane Mountain Primitive Area, showing that it is in the "Team Draft" stage, having gone through the "Public Scoping" process and inventory completion. No date is set for the next step, the "Initial Draft" of the Unit Management Plan to be presented for APA comment.

The Hurricane summit is on the list of "Special Management Areas" in the State Land Master Plan, as is Vanderwhacker summit, whose tower is being recommended for retention and rehabilitation. The Friends of Hurricane Mountain Fire Tower (www.hurricanefiretower.org) are urging organizations to send their letters of support for this cause to them at P.O. Box 426, Elizabethtown, NY 12952.

Appreciation is extended to publisher Susan Allen of the independent monthly "Adirondack Park Agency Reporter," P.O. Box 718, Keene Valley, N.Y., for permission to quote extensively from the February 2005 issue and to cite the Unit Management Plan research reported there.

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