Loss of Fire Lookouts Spurs Questions About Historic Preservation
For decades, fire lookout towers have served as a bridge between the human eye and the surrounding scenery. From spots high up on mountains, hikers, observers, and naturalists have been able to observe the breathtaking, otherwise inaccessible sights that the lookout towers offer access to—gazing out at glaciers and sweeping mountain ranges, feeling fresh gusts of wind, and finding solace in the solitude that lookouts provide. However, as wildfires and lack of upkeep threaten fire lookouts across the United States, these touchpoints are quickly dying out, taking with them a rich history of American environmental imaginings.
Fire lookout towers have a long relationship with the land they were first constructed to protect. The first U.S. towers, managed by independent lookouts, predate the U.S. Forest Service, which was first established in 1905. At the time, there were already tens of fire lookouts dotting the United States; during their peak, the U.S. Forest Service managed over 8,000 staffed fire lookout towers across 49 states. Now, there are only 300 that are still actively occupied. Many offer one of a kind views of stunning landscape features, such as Sahale Glacier in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Forest fire lookouts first served as crucial outposts for the men and women who watched for wildfires, as they spent long hours and months gazing at the horizon, looking out for smoke or other signs that could point towards a dangerous blaze. The job was, and remains, a lonely one; the fire lookouts live in solitude in the tower, often with no access to running water or electricity. In the early 20th century, wives of forest rangers often served as fire lookouts, as biases against women in forest fieldwork prohibited them from taking on any other role within the Forest Service.
Forest fire lookouts have garnered an almost mythological presence within the American naturalist tradition, in large part due to the several poets who featured fire lookouts within their work during the mid-20th century. Gary Snyder, a decorated American writer and renowned poet whose work often focuses on themes of environmental preservation, famously spent time as a fire lookout at Crater Mountain in 1952. Soon after his first stay, Snyder recruited fellow poet Philip Whalen to take a post at a nearby fire lookout, and a few years later, the two convinced Jack Kerouac to manage Desolation Peak, which features in Kerouac’s novels Desolation Angels and The Dharma Bums. Whalen, Kerouac, and Snyder wove fire lookouts into the literary history of the American landscape, with Snyder writing in his poem “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” of gazing “down valley a smoke haze/three days heat, after five days rain.”
These former staples of American landscapes are now facing rapid extinction. Decades after their prime, fire lookout towers occupy a precarious position between use and extinction. Their utility has largely faded, although some are still active and occupied by devoted lookouts who continue the tradition of solitary observation. But new technological instruments, including satellites, cameras, and drones, now watch for fires with far greater precision and speed than the human eye can replicate. And while their romantic allure still captivates many—some fire lookout towers are now popular destinations that hikers can rent out as unique vacation spots—they also serve as a physical reminder of the United States’ flawed relationship with fire management.
In September, one of Oregon’s most historic towers—the Bull of the Woods lookout, located in Mount Hood National Forest—burned to the ground, despite plans to try to preserve the lookout by protecting it with fire-resistant material. Last summer, the devastating Slater fire claimed the Bolan Mountain Lookout in South Oregon, while the still-active Scott Mountain Lookout burned down during the Archie Creek fire.
Prior to European colonization, fire was an established part of a landscape’s life cycle. Indigenous peoples used prescribed burning as a crucial part of their relationship to the land. Fires that occurred without human action, like those caused by lightning strikes, were also allowed to burn without intervention. European settlers began a practice of fire suppression and barred Indigenous burning practices. Forest fires became more rare, but they also grew bigger, which then led to an ever-intensifying strategy of restricting fires. Fire lookouts were erected and staffed as part of the Forest Service’s new fire management strategy: extinguish all fires as quickly and completely as possible.
Despite the Forest Service’s efforts, fires continued to grow in size and frequency. It wasn’t until the 1970s when scientific research emerged confirming the benefits of forest fires for a forest’s ecology, that the Forest Service began to reassess its approach to managing forest fires. Since then, the Service has attempted to shift its approach. Recently, Prescribed Burn Associations have started a collaborative effort with Indigenous peoples to facilitate controlled burns and to allow tribes to reclaim this practice.
What, then, to do with the hundreds of fire lookouts, left unmanned, now standing without active use? Inspired by the emotional value they hold within the American environmental memory, groups around the United States like the Forest Fire Lookout Association have sprung up to advocate for fire lookouts as sites worthy of a place on the National Register of Historic Places. So far, there are a total of twenty-two towers on the list.
Inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places recognizes the cultural and historical significance of fire lookouts, but it does not guarantee their preservation. In an interview with GlacierHub, Erica Avrami, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, explained, “National Register listing does not, in and of itself, protect a site from demolition or neglect, or compel long-term maintenance. Different levels and branches of government can designate a place ‘historic’ in different ways, some of which provide more regulatory protection than others. But many of these processes involve community-engaged research and documentation, which can in turn mobilize interest in and resources for their preservation.”
Marcy Rockman, who served with the U.S. National Park Service as its inaugural Climate Change Adaptation Coordinator for Cultural Resources, has written that National Register criteria allow nominations of places whose significance speaks to contemporary issues, such as climate change. Current National Park Service policy recommends recognizing significance of places that can help contemporary society understand how phenomena of climate change have come to be, which would include the scale and nature of wildfires. “To me,” Rockman said, “this is an argument for preserving at least a few lookout towers. Though how, how many, and which, of course would still need to be figured out.”
Shaping the future for fire lookout towers means considering not only what made them historic, but what they represent within the history of fire fighting in the United States. Although they served a generation of poets, fire lookout towers also inhibited decades of effective fire management, enabling the rapid increase in forest fires and destruction over the last twenty years. In 2020, 58,950 forest fires burned a total of 10.1 million acres of land—the second-largest amount of land burned in a year in the United States since 1960. Unless fires are managed, fire lookout towers like the Bull of the Woods lookout will continue to burn, making them one more feature to disappear amidst the ongoing climate crisis. But hope for the towers still remains; shifting attitudes towards fire management mean that fire lookouts could continue to serve, just as they have for decades past, as powerful reminders of immense mountain landscapes and their ability to stir the human imagination well into the future.