Sentries of the Forest, Rooms with a View, Castles in the Air". It seems forest fire lookouts draw out the romantic in everyone from reporters to those who have endured hair-raising (literally) lightning storms in a lookout, protected only by the glass insulators on their four-legged stool. Few historic properties elicit such passion and dedication for their preservation. The Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA) is made up of what some might call zealots. I am one of them. And I am only one of many Forest Service (FS) archaeologists who are among the members of the FFLA. This can only mean that as historic preservationists, we recognize the historic significance of these structures and we value the influence and support of advocacy groups such as the FFLA.
My first boss in the FS was an old "fire jock", Bert Toler, the Fire Staff Officer on the Colville NF. He was not happy to have recreation added to his duties as a staff officer and even less happy about having to hire an archaeologist. However, he believed that you followed orders and he trusted that if his specialists were worth their salt, they would fight for what they believed and if they convinced him, he would support them. Bert supported me in almost everything - everything except the preservation of lookout towers.
Bert's contrary opinion probably solidified my determination to evaluate and protect the fire towers, however, my career took me in other directions, often away from on-the-ground work. Ten years later in 1991, Keith Argow, a former FS district ranger and now the chairman of the FFLA appeared in my office in the Washington Office. He told me about the National Historic Lookout Register, the private register that he and the late Doug Newman started and about the formation of the subsequent FFLA. Ten more years passed and in 2001, influenced by the FFLA and FS employees with a passion for lookouts, the FS signed a Challenge Cost Share agreement with the FFLA to cooperate on the assessment, preservation, and use of remaining lookouts as part of the New Century of Service. Well, as our program logo states, "It's About Time". Appreciation of historic properties requires a time perspective. The FS now has that perspective and recognizes not only that the lookouts are endangered, but that they are an important symbol of the agency - an icon second only to Smokey Bear himself.
I doubt I have to convince any FS archaeologist or historian that lookouts are important. I think there are even some fire folks who still see the value in lookouts. But what about the value of the FFLA? What purpose are they serving? They support preservation, but we have a whole profession dedicated to that. They maintain a National Historic Lookout Register (NHLR), but we have the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). And after all, the NHLR isn't recognized by Congress and the criteria for listing on the NHLR aren't very rigorous. All true. But the FFLA, like all advocacy groups, plays an important role in what we do, and if we listen, will help us in what we do.
In 2002, 21 years after my first run-in with Mr. Toler over lookouts, I attended my first FFLA annual meeting. I was inspired by the single-mindedness and dedication of the advocates for lookouts. The FFLA membership is made up of citizens, many former lookouts. Among them are individuals with knowledge about original construction and materials. Some members are retired, and so have the time (not to mention the inclination) to spend their time helping to evaluate and save lookouts. Many FFLA members still staff lookouts for the FS and other state or federal agencies. The NHLR may not be as rigorous or professional as the NRHP, but it is an excellent listing of existing lookouts and their condition. Keith Argow says it best, "While a private register, it (the NHLR) has bought valuable time and protection to historic sites that for one reason or another were not eligible for the NRHP". We need the FFLA and the NHLR. In fact, we need such advocacy groups for many of our site types - it would make our jobs as federal historic preservation specialists easier and the rewards greater.
Our mandate, as dictated by the National Historic Preservation Act is to "preserve for public use historic sites, buildings and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States." Implicit in that mandate is the charge to protect that which the American public values. I am not suggesting throwing out the NRHP and replacing it with citizen-run registers for every kind of site out there that inspires advocacy (I suspect we'd have one for rock art immediately, but lithic scatters might suffer!). But I am suggesting that those private registers tell us what the American public values. It's tough to get listed on the NRHP and it should remain so. This is a national list of "historic and archaeologic sites, buildings, and objects (...) that possess exceptional value as commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States." (NHPA Sec. 2(b)). Our jobs as historic preservationists is to have that time perspective and to protect sites, even if their value is not readily apparent to everyone. But isn't it nice when it is apparent? Having the FFLA advocate for preservation of lookouts makes it easier for us to do our jobs.
When a fellow preservationist commends me for saving this or that, I am gratified to be sure, that I am doing my job. But when a non-archaeologist thanks me or compliments one of our programs, I am very proud that we are doing the job for our constituents - for the public. Here are a few of the comments I received after the lookout story appeared on the cover of the PIT Traveler in March 2002:
"I enjoyed your article about Forest Fire Lookouts/Century of Service. Especially about Chewelah Peak LO. I have lived in NE Washington all my life. I took for granted the lookouts would always be there until one day I realized only a few were left. I could not picture the forest with the lookout towers. I had the chance to save a DNR tower from Monumental Mountain in 1996. The Colville NF is now making new plans that include saving the few lookouts left. I hope that these lookouts can be restored and at least be put into the rental program. Thanks for your article. Rod Fosback
"I read your article in PIT Traveler on fire lookouts and just wanted to say thanks for your support of lookouts. I have done fire lookout work for 14 years. I am also a member of FFLA. My husband and I spent our honeymoon on Trinity LO on the Boise NF. Not everyone, including sometimes the people you work for, appreciates lookouts and the things we have to deal with to do our jobs, so it is nice to see some official interest." Brenda L. Tippin, Rogue River NF
In today's FS with so much time spent on process, litigation, and budget arguments, I find it refreshing to meet with a bunch of citizens focused on protection of a resource. I find it even more exhilarating that this particular group is focused on a resource that we as historic preservationists care about. I am grateful the FFLA persevered long enough to see the agency come around to value and protect the remaining fire towers. If they had not, we might not have as many towers left to preserve. The power of public advocacy is something we should never take for granted and never underestimate.
(Bert Toler, wherever you are, thank you! You inspired me to fight for what I know is right.) Jill A. Osborn
(Note: Jill wrote this for Heritage Times, an internal USFS newsletter. She is the Forest Service's National Passport in Time Coordinator as well as the new director of the FFLA's Southern Idaho chapter.)