The old fire observation tower on Spruce Mountain is the tallest publicly owned fire tower in the Adirondacks — and the one closest for hikers who live in the Capital Region.
But for 20 years, since the state Department of Environmental Conservation closed it, the 73-foot-tall steel-frame structure at the very southern edge of the Adirondack Park has been off-limits to the public.
Today, the bottom wooden steps are gone, removed to keep people from trying to climb it, and some higher steps are broken. There are bullet holes and other signs of vandalism linked to abandonment and disuse.
It may not be forlorn much longer, though.
The tower’s sweeping views are tempting, and though the going has been slow, there are prominent advocates — like the conservation organization Saratoga PLAN — for fixing it up and re-opening it as a hiking destination.
Those efforts are now gaining ground. A new citizen committee has formed, and there’s hope that a series of obstacles can be overcome by sometime next year.
“If it’s at all possible, and I don’t know if it is, I would like to start in the spring with restoration,” said Paul Laskey of Ballston Spa, chairman of the Friends of the Spruce Mountain Fire Tower.
A complicated series of land ownerships on the 1.2-mile trail up the mountain has been an impediment to access, but one big access issue may soon be removed.
Saratoga County, which owns the land under the state-owned tower, has agreed in principle to give the property to the state for public use, now that a nearby former county emergency radio communications tower is scheduled for removal.
Previously, county officials had been concerned about public access because of the sensitivity of communications equipment there.
If it’s reopened, the tower should see a lot more visitors — that’s been the case with other restored fire towers in the Adirondacks, which have become popular hiking destinations.
“These fire towers are a big adjunct to tourism,” said Jack Freeman of the Adirondack Mountain Club, who has written a guide to Adirondack fire towers. “People will come from a long ways.”
The ADK has previously worked to restore the tower on Hadley Mountain in Hadley and Blue Mountain in Blue Mountain Lake as it tries to establish more hiking destinations outside the heavily used High Peaks.
Nearly a century ago, there were more than 100 fire towers across the state, staffed seasonally, to spot forest fires. Of the 29 still standing in the Adirondacks, about a dozen have been or are in the process of being restored.
In some cases — as on 2,009-foot Spruce Mountain — the towers offer the only views from wooded summits. From the Spruce tower, on a clear day, the view extends from the High Peaks and Green Mountains to downtown Albany.
The tower was built in 1928, part of a system set up in the decades after massive wildfires in the Adirondacks, particularly in 1903 and 1908, caused enormous damage. It was last staffed in 1989.
The year after it was built, the Spruce Mountain fire observer reported 19 fires and 276 visitors, said Laskey, author of “The Fire Observation Towers of New York State: Survivors That Still Stand Guard.” In 1933, the observer reported 49 fires and a big increase in drop-ins — he had nearly 2,600 visitors.
“This tower has always been popular because of its closeness to highly populated areas,” Laskey wrote in the book.
Julia Stokes, chairwoman of Saratoga PLAN, said there’s growing public interest in fire towers, along with other places to hike and observe nature.
“It’s a whole quality of life issue we are seeing more and more of,” she said.
Pushing for progress
It was a call from Freeman at the ADK to the then-new Saratoga PLAN in 2004 that got the current efforts rolling.
“He said there was 100 acres [of land that the Spruce trail crosses] available and the guy will sell it at a bargain price, but we’re got to buy it right now,” recalled Stokes.
The Saratoga Springs-based group was able to raise $10,000 to buy the land from a local logger, giving the group a stake in the tower’s future.
“We’ve been trying to get access ever since,” Stokes said.
The hiking trail starts on state land, then crosses the Saratoga PLAN property and private land belonging to Lyme Timber before reaching the county-owned summit.
Lyme Timber hasn’t granted the public approval to cross its land, but that permission is expected at some point. Its land is covered by a state conservation easement Lyme inherited from International Paper, but details of the easement still need to be negotiated.
The county maintains a maintenance road up the mountain, but it is off-limits to the general public, though both all-terrain vehicle operators and snowmobilers unofficially use it.
The county is restructuring its emergency radio system and no longer needs the land under the tower.
“For a long time, Spruce Mountain was the sole provider of radio communications for the county,” said Paul Lent, the county’s director of emergency services. “That is no longer the case.”
The county’s radio microwave dishes and other broadcast equipment have been moved several hundred feet away, to a second Spruce Mountain radio tower owned by National Grid.
A permit issued to the county by the Adirondack Park Agency requires that the old antenna tower be removed and the site “restored to its natural state.” The county is currently advertising for bids to have that work done.
Once it is, Lent said, the county will no longer have any interest in owning the land under the fire tower.
In fact, county officials are quite concerned about liability, since radio equipment workers as recently as Columbus Day saw people who arrived by ATV illegally climbing the fire tower’s cross-bars.
“We’ll never totally deter ATVs, but we need to somehow secure the facility we have now,” Lent said.
The plan is to give the three acres immediately around the tower to the state. It will require a subdivision approval from the APA, since the county still wants to own five acres for service facilities for its remaining radio equipment.
Lent said the DEC and the county Board of Supervisors will both need to formally agree to submit a subdivision application to the APA, and there’s no guarantee of APA support.
“They have neither encouraged or discouraged us,” Lent said. “Their single interest is to see the nest of [radio] towers up there cleaned up.”
Lent grew up in Corinth, and his father ran a grocery. He said that as a boy, he used to bring groceries up the mountain to the fire observer.
Tom Martin, the head forester for DEC Region 5, said he believes that the issues can be worked out.
Over the years, some state fire towers have been taken down in wilderness areas, but the DEC has become more sympathetic to keeping some of them available to hikers, he acknowledged.
In addition to their views, the towers can offer lessons about the historic era in the early and mid-20th century when manned fire towers were the way forest fires were spotted.
“DEC is increasingly encouraging that towers be used as education sites,” said David Thomas Train, acting director of the Adirondack Fire Tower Association, who was involved in restoring the tower on Pok-O-Moonshine Mountain in Essex County.
“Obviously, it sounds like there are a lot of ownership issues here, but it sounds like there is also a lot of potential,” Thomas Train said of the Spruce Mountain efforts.
The state has $250,000 available through SUNY Potsdam for fire tower restorations and providing summit stewards at towers, Martin said, though the legal mechanisms for spending it are still being worked out.
Corinth Supervisor Richard B. Lucia said he supports plans to restore the public use of the tower.
“We’re very interested in it,” Lucia said.
Friends of the Spruce Mountain Fire Tower, under the auspices of Saratoga PLAN, will raise money to fix the steps, railings and observation room and provide volunteer labor, once there’s permission from county and state officials to work.
“Restoration, at best, is likely to take one, a year and a half, and that’s after we have permission for the go-ahead,” Laskey said.
Until the land transfer takes place, there won’t be a serious assessment of the cost of restoration.
Laskey said he hopes to see a lot of material donated, as happened when the Hadley Mountain fire tower was restored in the early 1990s.
“Pretty much all the landings and all the [stair] treads need to be replaced,” Laskey said. “Pretty much all the wood in the structure needs to be replaced.”
Saratoga PLAN will be coordinating efforts among the parties to gain legal access to the tower.
Anyone interested in joining the effort should contact Andy Fyfe, stewardship and education coordinator at Saratoga PLAN, at firstname.lastname@example.org.