Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Commentary: Firetowers and Wild Lands Management

I love fire towers – and fire wardens. They remind me of my youth and the excitement of finding a firetower and firewarden tending it, and weaving stories around the campfire about the fire warden living on the flanks of a wild mountain.

Interpreting Adirondack cultural and environmental history from a firetower is important work being undertaken by wonderful volunteers and some Forest Rangers in the Adirodnack Park. Our Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) acts in the spirit of an educational and interpretive force for the Park by participating actively in the restoration and educational use of the 20 or so firetowers in Wild Forest areas, such as the Bald Mountain Fire Tower above Old Forge and Inlet, Hadley Mountain in Saratoga County, Azure Mountain in Franklin County, Wakely Mountain firetower in Hamilton County, and many others.

As a member of the Adirondack Park Agency told me, too many children native to the Fulton Chain of Lakes region have never beat a path up Bald Mountain and never appreciated what they can learn of their own home place from the firetower atop that marvelous hogback hill overlooking the Fulton Chain. Now that is changing thanks to the community, including local government, citizens of the area and the DEC.

Here, and at Hadley Mountain and many other places, these pioneers in firetower restoration and education recognize that the difficulties of restoring the tower is only the first step. Staffing the tower with skilled, communicative and passionate individuals is central to the goal of introducing this and coming generations to a great environmental and cultural legacy.

I equally embrace the State Land Master Plan as the imperfect way that we humans attempt to undertake wildlands management in our time. One can embrace both firetowers (cultural history) and Wilderness in the whole Adirondack Park, but to keep these thoughts in mind at one time requires a clearer sense of Park mission for education and stewardship.

DEC is right to recommend this spring the relocation of the firetowers on St. Regis and Hurricane Mountains Mountain within the St. Regis Canoe Area and Hurricane Mountain Primitive Area respectively. In this recommendation, DEC recognizes one of the most important values in wilderness designation, the symbolic values. By symbolic values, I mean those values of wilderness where human presence is not dominant, where humans acknowledge their lack of certain knowledge to manage or manipulate landscapes.

Wilderness, Primitive and Canoe Areas were designated as places where people are most likely to exercise humility and restraint in their relationship to their environment. In effect, the exercise of humility and restraint are merely an extension of the ethics we would like to think we display for our fellow human beings. The results of human failure to place humility and restraint in our relations with the environment higher on our social agenda show tellingly in the quality and integrity of our air, biota, atmosphere, soils, ground and surface waters, oceans and neighborhoods, if we have eyes to see.

Maintaining the firetower in a designated Canoe and Primitive area requires the means necessary to renovate, maintain and reach that firetower for all time – using helicopters, mechanized tools, vegetative cutting and mass hiking to a destination. These actions override the symbolic values of wilderness, places where “we most keenly feel our interdependence with all life” (Howard Zahniser).

From the summits of St. Regis and Hurricane spreads in all directions the scintillating canoe country and High Peaks of the Adirondacks. These are areas which must remain untrammeled, meaning unconstrained, unhindered, and unshackled from our human tendencies to manipulate the environment. In their state of disrepair, the towers are also public health hazards. For all these reasons, the towers should be removed and if possible relocated and interpreted in the low country. Due to a history of intense forest fire more than a century ago, these peaks already afford marvelous views of the mountains and lake country – without a firetower.

Photo: Wakely Mountain firetower near Indian Lake.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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