By Phil Brown
An Adirondack resident who builds and restores fire towers has been caught up, though indirectly, in a controversy over a structure he erected this summer on a mountaintop in Maine owned by the Nature Conservancy.
In some respects, the imbroglio mirrors debates in the Adirondack Park over the presence of fire towers in the forest preserve.
David Vana of Bloomingdale, the owner of Davana LLC, was hired by the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy to construct an 80-foot observation tower on Trout Mountain to give visitors a view of fabled Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. At 5,268 feet, Katahdin is the highest mountain in Maine, the inspiration of writers such as Henry David Thoreau and painters such as Frederic Edwin Church.
After the tower was erected in July, people complained that it glinted in the sunlight and marred an iconic view of Katahdin, according to the Portland Press Herald.
“We didn’t anticipate this being an issue. We have never put up a fire tower before. It was a learning experience for us,” Nancy Sferra, director of land management for the Maine chapter, told the newspaper.
Vana told the Explorer that the tower’s zinc coating, if left alone, will dull after a year, making the structure less visible. To speed up the process, he has recommended that the conservancy apply vinegar—a mild oxidizer—to the upper portion of the tower.
Vana has built or restored dozens of fire towers around the country and is no stranger to the passions they engender. Some see towers as a cherished part of history. Others see them as eyesores.
In the Adirondacks, fire towers on St. Regis and Hurricane mountains were the subjects of long-running controversies. The park’s State Land Master Plan called for the removal of both towers, but bowing to public pressure, the Adirondack Park Agency voted in 2010 to allow them to remain. Vana has since worked on fixing up both towers.
“I would rather see them stay,” he said. “They teach the people about the history of the area. They were there to protect the timber resource.”
Vana has built or restored fire towers in 21 states. His customers include private landowners, state agencies and even the U.S. military (he built three guard towers at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba). This fall, he plans to erect towers in Iowa and Alabama. He has jobs lined up next year in Vermont, New Hampshire and Alabama (again).
Although Vana has worked on a number of existing towers in the Adirondacks, he gets few requests to erect new ones here, partly because APA regulations generally limit the height of structures to 40 feet.
“One guy wanted to put in a 100-foot tower,” he recalled. “I said you can’t do that. He said screw the APA.” The tower was not built.
Vana, who grew up in Illinois, developed a fascination with fire towers as a boy. When he moved to the Adirondacks in the 1970s to train as a luge rider, he bought a tower for his property in Bloomingdale but ended up selling it. That’s how got his start in the business.
“I came here to ride luge and am still trying to find the bus fare to leave,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place to be.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct when Van moved to the Adirondacks.