Land deal puts vista in jeopardy
By Phil Brown
The fire observer who staffed the tower on Mount Adams must have been one lucky fellow. The 3,540-foot mountain sits smack dab in between the eastern and western High Peaks, affording an intimate perspective on both sectors of the Adirondack Park’s largest wilderness.
Mount Marcy lies less than six miles to the east. Santanoni Peak is just five miles to the west.
If you look toward Santanoni and let your gaze sweep clockwise, your eye passes over, among other summits, the Seward Range, the Sawtooth Mountains, Wallface (looming over Indian Pass), Marshall, Iroquois, Algonquin, Colden, Cliff Mountain, Marcy, Skylight and Allen.
“Some people say it has the most spectacular view of all the towers,” said Marty Podskoch, who is writing a two-volume history of Adirondack fire towers.
Mount Adams has the potential to be one of the best short hikes in the Adirondacks. It’s only two miles from the trailhead in Tahawus to the summit. Along the way, you cross the upper Hudson River on a steel suspension bridge and the northern tip of Lake Jimmy on a bridge of floating planks. The path up the mountain, though no longer maintained, is easy to follow, and unlike more popular trails, it retains a wild feel. You don’t have to wade through sloughs of mud on this route.
Yet the chances are good that hardly anyone will want to climb Adams a few years from now. After the state acquires the peak from the Open Space Institute (OSI), perhaps as soon as next year, Mount Adams likely will be added to the High Peaks Wilderness. Because most man-made structures are prohibited in Wilderness Areas, the fire tower would have to be removed. And without the tower, Mount Adams has no view to speak of and hence little appeal to hikers.
It’s possible that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will close the tower, by removing the lower steps, even before taking it down. The High Peaks guidebook published by the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) describes the tower as unsafe to climb, which helps explain why DEC stopped maintaining the trail years ago. Some floorboards in the cab are missing and so are some steps just below the cab. Nevertheless, hikers continue to go up the tower.
Several hikers who post messages on the “Views from the Top” Web site contend that the tower, built in 1917, should be restored and maintained after the state purchases the mountain. None of the posters argued that it should be removed. In a typical message, a hiker who identifies himself as “Stickman” wrote: “Mount Adams is one of the best secrets in the Adirondacks, and I think that all efforts should be taken to not only keep the tower but also to re-maintain the trail.”
“I’ve climbed Mt Adams 32 times,” said another poster. “It’s the first hike I do each year . . . and I have always said that it is and has the best view in the Adirondacks. It would be a terrible shame to see [the tower] removed.”
Not surprisingly, Podskoch sides with those who want to keep and restore the tower. “I’d love to see as many of these towers saved as possible,” he said. “It’s part of history. It’s a great destination for hikers.”
Theoretically, the tower could stay if the land were classified as Wild Forest rather than Wilderness. But most environmentalists favor the Wilderness classification, not only because it offers stronger protection, but also because that’s the classification of the abutting state lands.
All told, the state plans to purchase 6,200 acres from OSI, which has reached a deal to buy 9,600 acres from the current owner, NL Industries. The state tract, including Henderson Lake, the Preston Ponds and Mount Adams, will become a part of the Forest Preserve, bordered on the north, west and east by the High Peaks Wilderness. The land to the south will be protected by conservation easements that prohibit development.
“This is a natural addition to the High Peaks Wilderness Area,” ADK attorney Neil Woodworth said of the parcel the state will buy. “I really don’t think we should give this land less protection than it deserves just to save the fire tower.”
A Wild Forest classification could allow uses prohibited in a Wilderness, such as mountain biking and snowmobiling. “Do you want to see the town of Newcomb pushing to open this area to snowmobiles?” Woodworth asked.
In fact, Newcomb already has asserted that it has a right of way through another section of the NL tract that it could lawfully open to snowmobiles—a position disputed by Woodworth.
Newcomb Supervisor George Canon said he would like to see the tract classified as Wild Forest, but he holds out little hope. “I’d love to see the tower remain,” Canon said. “It’s a piece of history. Having said that, I cannot imagine that land being classified anything but Wilderness. It’s almost a foregone conclusion.”
It’s up to DEC to decide how to classify the land, subject to approval from the Adirondack Park Agency. Spokesman Mike Fraser said DEC will look at all the options, but “most likely it will be classified as Wilderness,” in which case, he added, the tower would become “a non-conforming structure.”
The state built dozens of fire towers in the Adirondacks following massive forest fires that burned more than a million acres in the early 1900s. They were staffed by observers who usually lived in cabins on the mountains. Although DEC now uses airplanes to spot fires, the towers remain popular with the public. ADK published a guidebook on fire-tower trails two years ago, Views from on High, and now offers a sew-on patch to anyone who visits at least 18 towers in the Adirondacks and five in the Catskills. The club encourages the restoration of towers in Wild Forest Areas, especially on summits that lack a natural view. Volunteer groups have sprung up to refurbish towers on several Adirondack peaks.
What’s the appeal? “The hiker likes a destination, and a fire tower is an ideal destination,” said Jack Freeman, author of Views from on High. “When you get there, you always get a view—assuming the weather is good.”
The Mount Adams structure is just one of several endangered towers in the Adirondack Park. A few years ago, DEC planned to dismantle those on St. Regis Mountain and Hurricane Mountain. (The towers have won a reprieve until the agency completes management plans for the regions in question.) Unlike Mount Adams, these summits offer stupendous views without the towers. In fact, both are popular destinations even though DEC has closed the towers by removing the lower steps.
Wakely Mountain near Indian Lake offers a closer parallel to Mount Adams. It, too, has a wooded summit that offers scanty views, yet from its tower hikers enjoy a stunning panorama of forested peaks. The fate of the Wakely tower also will depend on the land classification. Wakely, however, sits on the border of a Wilderness and Wild Forest, so a good argument can be made for either classification.
Both ADK and the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks favor keeping the tower on Wakely, a position that puts them at odds with the Adirondack Council. When it comes to the Mt. Adams tower, however, ADK and the council agree that it should go. (At press time, the Residents’ Committee was still undecided.)
“There are lots of attractive vistas from mountains in this section of the Park,” said John Sheehan, the council’s spokesman. “You don’t need a tower on top of this particular mountain to get a great view.”
If you go . . .
Caveat: The Adirondack Mountain Club considers the Mount Adams fire tower unsafe. The wooden steps are old and spongy. Some steps near the top are missing, as are some floorboards in the cab. If, despite the danger, you do go up the tower, stay below the cab.
Trailhead: From Northway Exit 29 in North Hudson, drive west on Blue Ridge Road (County 2) for about 20 miles and turn right onto Tahawus Road. After 4.4 miles, the Tahawus Road forks. Bear left and drive 3 miles to a parking lot on the right (just past the old blast furnace).
The hike: You begin on the maintained trail that leads to the Opalescent River and the Flowed Lands. In a few minutes, you cross the Hudson River on a steel suspension bridge. At 0.6 mile, you cross the tip of Lake Jimmy on a long bridge of floating planks. Shortly after, you’ll pass a cabin on the left. (The old jeep track next to the cabin is not the trail you want.) Continue on the main trail another minute or so and look for a cairn on the left. This is the start of the Mount Adams trail. Although no longer maintained, the path is easy to follow. In many places it’s marked by surveyor’s tape. Toward the top you’ll see red disks placed by the state in days gone by. From trailhead to summit, you’ll ascend 2,760 feet in two miles. The last half-mile or so is quite steep. Adams is the 87th tallest peak in the Adirondacks.