Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Once Was, No More

Every day I am reminded of how our society thinks of construction. It's merely a process, apparently, and has nothing at all to do with the value of that which has been constructed. In the area where I work I see fine old houses bought up, then leveled so that three or four or five or six homes can be built on the same plot of land that once provided space to a single house. I see rich folk buying perfectly fine homes, and gutting them down to the bare stud walls and starting over. I've seen this done with homes in June, the house sells again in December, and in January the new owners repeat the process. It's bizarre and wasteful almost beyond belief.

When I was a kid the Forest Service was still using fire lookouts to spot fires. Ideally, three towers would take readings and the fire would be located via triangulation when the spotters radioed in the figures. Here in the South, full-time rangers would man the towers, usually on a shift by shift basis. Out west, where towers could be very isolated, the lookouts would sometimes be manned by full-time seasonal employees. Even Jack Kerouac once spent a spring and summer manning a lookout in Washington State.

By the time I was a teenager, these towers were being used less and less. The Forest Service was beginning to rely on spotter planes and, later, satellite imagery to pinpoint fires. Slowly, they stopped using fire towers entirely. And, having no more use for the towers, they began to either remove them, or allowed them to deteriorate.

The Green Knob Fire Tower in Pisgah National Forest is deteriorating.

Generally, I cannot stand to come across a man-made structure on an isolated mountain top. It bothers me to see a building or a house in the wilderness. Sometimes, it makes my blood boil. But I've never been bothered by seeing a fire tower when I get to the top of a mountain. These days the towers are generally locked up tight. No one drives or hikes up to use them anymore. But, to me, they're historical buildings. They're a part of how we managed and maintained our forests in earlier days. Sometimes for the good, and sometimes for the bad. But history they are.

Why does the Forest Service allow them to fall apart?

In the west, many fire lookouts are kept in good order and are offered as overnight lodging destinations for hikers. It would be great if this could be done with lookouts here in the East. However, there doesn't seem to be much of an effort to allow this. Nor does anyone seem interested in preserving most of our remaining fire towers as historical structures. It's a shame. All over the South fire towers are crumbling. Some are definitely not safe to climb, while others are still in relatively good shape.

This past weekend on my way to the top of Frosty Mountain, I found the location of the old fire tower that had once graced that Georgia summit. All that remains are the concrete footings. I haven't been there since I was seventeen years old, but I seem to recall that the fire tower was still there when I was in high school. The Forest Service has all but eradicated all evidence of that old structure.

So it goes.

Some concrete footings are all that remain of the Frosty Mountain Fire Tower.

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