St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower: A Summary of Recent History

(A version of the recent history is currently published in “Adirondack Fire Towers, Their History and Lore, the Southern Districts” by Martin Podskoch)

The saga of St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower continues to unfold. Although this narrative summarizes the battle for St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower, the fate of Hurricane Mountain Fire Tower is closely linked because both were considered nonconforming structures by the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan.

Just after the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) meeting in February of 2005, the St. Regis Mountain Fire Observation Station was placed on the New York State Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places in March 2005, critical elements in the salvation of the tower.

In July 2005, David Petrelli wrote to the APA commissioners notifying them of the towers registry as a historic site and reminding them of the more than 2500 signatures which had been collected on a petition to save the tower.

On April 6, 2006, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Unit Management Plan (UMP) for the St. Regis Canoe Area faced its initial review by the APA with the fire tower being the highest profile issue. The preferred management alternative selected for implementation called for the development of “a comprehensive Adirondack fire tower management plan.” It further stated that “the Department will work with the APA in the development of this plan through a process that includes public involvement. This plan will address all State owned fire towers in the Adirondack Park. Until this plan is completed the fire tower on St. Regis Mountain will not be removed. “It appeared that the St. Regis fire tower had gained a reprieve, but it was short lived.

Excerpts from a draft DEC memo containing comments and recommendations dated May 4, 2006; “Staff believe that due to its closure in 1990 it is clear the tower no longer serves any essential purpose as defined by current Master Plan guidelines and criteria. Consequently, staff recommend that any action contained in the proposed comprehensive fire tower plan concerning the future of the Saint Regis Fire Tower should be incorporated in a UMP amendment for the review by the Agency. Staff further recommend that if no UMP amendment is approved, then the Saint Regis Fire Tower should be removed within three years of approval of this unit plan since it will continue to be a non-conforming structure in the Canoe Area. Staff also recognize the other alternatives of the comprehensive study could include either relocation or a revision to the Master Plan.”

It was not until February 2010 that the DEC released the Fire Tower Study stating “the St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower in the St. Regis Canoe area should be removed in conformance with Master Plan Guidelines”.

The minutes of the APA’s May 11-12 meeting state that “the Agency unanimously adopted the revised draft resolution finding the St. Regis Canoe Area Unit Management Plan in conformance with the general guidelines and criteria of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, except with regard to final action on the St. Regis Fire tower, to be further clarified through a proposed comprehensive study of fire towers…”
”It now appears that the Department of Environmental Conservation has one year from the date of adoption of this plan to develop a comprehensive plan for fire towers within the Adirondack Park. Should no such plan be developed or should a plan not meet the future approval of the APA, the St. Regis Fire Tower would be destined for removal in three years. According to DEC this Fire Tower would not be removed during peak summit use months or during Thrush mating season, so likely removal would not happen until late fall of this year.”

A series of public hearings was held by the APA at which virtually every person spoke in favor of saving and restoring the towers with only a few environmental groups in favor of the tower removal. One of the most eloquent and determined supporters of the fire towers was Steven Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH.) Numerous articles appeared in local and regional newspapers and on-line surveys reported responders overwhelmingly in favor of saving the towers.

Finally, in October 2010, in a rare move, the state APA’s Board of Commissioners voted to classify land beneath fire towers on St. Regis and Hurricane mountains as historic, which would let the structures remain and be restored. In December 2010, in one of his final acts before leaving office, Gov. David Paterson approved the state land classifications recommended by the Adirondack Park Agency for state lands inside the Adirondack Park.

In May 2013, the friends of St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower were officially organized and later that year, the Fire Tower Inspection Report from a state engineer was made available. The DEC stance changed from “… fire towers in wilderness, primitive and canoe areas are deemed nonconforming and must be removed” to “they are more valuable in a restored condition rather than being dismantled.”

At long last, on November 7, 2014 DEC Commissioner, Joe Martens issued the final Saint Regis Mountain Fire Tower Historic Area (SRMFTHA) Unit Management Plan which would allow restoration of the tower to proceed. In May 2015 a Volunteer Stewardship Agreement (VSA) between the DEC and the Friends group was signed. A survey for Bicknell’s thrush was completed by Paul Smith’s College ornithologist Brian McCallister and his students. No indication of the presence of Bicknell’s thrush was detected by this survey which cleared the way for construction efforts.

Meanwhile a detailed parts list was prepared in joint collaboration between DEC Forester Steve Guglielmi and the Friends and the first supply flights to the summit occurred in August 2015.

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The Aquatic Watershed Institute (AWI) of Paul Smith’s College provided a summit steward to be on the St. Regis summit every Friday during the summer season. In September, Friends, volunteers and the Student Conservation Association (SCA) worked for a week on the mountain summit installing railings, stairs, landings, safety fencing and replacing the floor of the cab.

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Donations, large and small, from numerous supporters of the tower renovation allowed the Friends to contract with David Vana of Davana, LLC  in Bloomingdale, NY to remove the old roof, fabricate new parts and assemble them on the tower. In July 2016 the new roof was flown to summit and debris from the fall of 2015 work was removed. In a two day effort, the old roof was removed and the new roof was installed.

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The AWI of Paul Smith’s College again provided a summit steward to be on the St. Regis summit every Friday during the summer season to educate the public about the fire tower and the flora and fauna of St. Regis Mt. In August 2016, Friends David and Eryn Petrelli and Dr. Ed Hixson painted the cab, inside and out. September 1, 2016 FOSRMFT members Doug Fitzgerald, Jack Burke, Bob Brand and Rich LaBombard spent the day installing window frames, the safety railing in the cab, and putting up the occupancy sign. These actions allowed the tower to be open to the public for the first time in 26 years!!!

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There is still much to do to fully restore the tower. Cross braces need to be replaced, painting completed, cosmetic repairs to the footers, and more signage. Interpretive panels identifying the surrounding vistas are being prepared with the assistance of local photographer, Mark Kurtz. Educational materials are being prepared, along with arrangements for more frequent summit steward coverage during the most popular climbing seasons.

See the whole story of the salvation and restoration of St. Regis Fire Tower at http://www.friendsofstregis.org.