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A view of one’s own Black Mountain Lookout open for rental

Delaine Fragnoli

Managing Editor

June 16, 2011 – “You’re going alone?” That was the invariable response when I told folks I was headed for a stay at Black Mountain Lookout, recently opened as a recreational rental on the eastern edge of the Plumas National Forest.

Well, yeah, I was going alone. That was the whole point of it for me: quiet, solitude, time for reading, reflecting and writing.

I recognize that not everyone visits a lookout for solitude. These iconic structures exert a powerful allure for folks with a variety of interests. While staying at the McCarthy Point Lookout on the Lassen National Forest a few years ago, I found an entry in the guestbook by a couple who had spent a romantic weekend there, drinking white wine and barbecuing sea scallops.

Photographers, of course, love lookouts, with their landscape views and wonderful light.

Stargazers also are drawn to lookouts. Forest Service sources told me a woman had already reserved a night at Black Mountain in August to catch a meteor shower.

Those hikers and cyclists who can’t resist a climb, called “mountain goats” in trail parlance, flock to lookouts. They know their hard work will be rewarded with a 360-degree view.

The structures also draw students of geology, geography and fire history, as well as four-wheelers and birdwatchers.

Increasingly, the U.S. Forest Service is recognizing the broad appeal of the towers and rehabbing unused ones for recreational use by the public.

 

From disuse to reuse

Thousands of lookouts once dotted the country, with as many as 625 in California at one time, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA).

The 1930s marked the apex of lookout building. Black Mountain Lookout is one of nine the Civilian Conservation Corps built on the Plumas National Forest in the mid-1930s, said Forest Service archeologist Mary Kliejunas, who led the renovation. The C-3-type cab sits on a 10-foot enclosed timber tower, the same style as the structures on Mills Peak and Smith Peak, which are still staffed for fire detection, and on Mount Ingalls, which has been removed to the Plumas County fairgrounds.

Like a number of lookout styles, the Black Mountain design was made of pre-cut lumber with each piece numbered for easy installation in the field, so crews did not need extensive carpentry skills. The only modification made during the restoration was moving the stairway.

Beginning in the 1970s, advances in firefighting technology, such as aerial patrols, computerized lightning detection systems, radio communication, GPS and cellphones, led to a decline in lookout use. (The Forest Service and CalFire are currently testing a program that uses high-definition cameras and microwave wireless links to monitor fire activity.)

Agencies like the Forest Service stopped staffing many lookouts and abandoned them to the elements. Some were removed because they posed a hazard or were attractive nuisances. Some were left in place, but their stairs were removed to prevent unauthorized access. Others, like Argentine Peak, Kettle Rock and Pilot Peak on the Plumas, have fallen victim to vandals. Still others have been replaced by telecommunications equipment. Ironically, some have burned in the very wildfires they were meant to detect.

Nationwide, about 2,000 lookouts remain today, according to the FFLA. California  has 198 still standing, and 50 of those are currently staffed.

The Forest Service stopped manning Black Mountain in the 1980s, except during lightning events.

Over the last 20 years, a renewed interest in the structures has prompted the Forest Service to restore and rehabilitate the towers in what it calls “adaptive reuse.” Today, dozens of lookouts, guard stations and cabins are available to the public as overnight rentals.

Nearby, the Lassen National Forest rehabbed the McCarthy Point Lookout for recreational use in the mid to late 1990s. The Tahoe National Forest opened the Calpine Lookout as a recreational rental in summer 2005. This easily accessible lookout has proved hugely popular. It books up quickly and in its first two years of operation made $9,000 in income for the forest.

Success breeds success with lookout rental programs. Because the forest can keep 95 percent of the income generated by the rentals, they become self-sustaining. Any repairs or additional renovations can be paid for with rental money. The funds can also be rolled over into new projects, so income from one lookout can pay for restoration of another.

 

Black Mountain

The Plumas National Forest has trailed a bit in catching the trend.

In 2006, fire manager Don Bliss had the idea to repurpose Black Mountain Lookout. Although many such unused structures, like the one on Argentine Rock outside of Quincy, have been heavily vandalized, “We were pleasantly surprised when we examined Black Mountain,” said Kliejunas. “It had stairs, a roof, windows.”

In a testament to the appeal of lookouts, she easily found dedicated volunteers to help with the project. Retired Forest Service employees Pete Meyer, Mike Martini and Curtis Marshall volunteered literally hundreds of hours to carry out tasks such as painting, replacing the door, demolishing the old outhouse and restoring the wooden floor, which had been covered with linoleum. Larry Douglas, of Portola, re-roofed the structure. The Plumas County Resource Advisory Committee kicked in $26,000 for a new toilet building.

Due to open last summer, the project hit a snag when officials discovered the lookout’s grounding system, for protection during lightning storms, was not up to snuff.

Trucking the precast toilet building to the site via flatbed truck also proved a challenge. The final switchback on the dirt access road proved the crux. But a talented driver out of Reno successful navigated the corner and delivered the building. Kliejunas said that was probably the most stressful part of the project for her.

With those issues taken care of, the Forest Service hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony last month at the site. “I think this (lookout) will bring a whole new set of people onto the forest,” said Beckwourth District Ranger Deb Bumpus. “From an economic standpoint it will expand the use of the forest.” She noted the lookout was already more than 60 percent booked for the summer.

But Kliejunas isn’t finished just yet. She would like to add interpretive materials to the site. Indeed, lookouts make great places to educate the public about fire ecology, prevention and recovery. At Black Mountain, the hillside is dotted with “skeleton brush,” the white bones of shrubs incinerated by the Clark Fire, which burned 41,000 acres in 1987.

 

Crocker Guard Station

With the work at Black Mountain nearly complete, Kliejunas has turned her attention to the next project: restoration of the Crocker Guard Station. Located off the Beckwourth-Genesee Road not far from Beckwourth, and on the way to Black Mountain, the guard station was built in 1912 and stayed in use into the 1980s. Kliejunas had hoped to have the project complete in time for a centennial celebration, but now predicts restoration won’t be finished until 2013 or 2014.

The guard station, unusual in its two-story design, sits at the edge of a meadow. Because it is larger than the typical lookout and adjacent to Crocker Campground, it has the potential to house large groups. Although Kliejunas is using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for the project, she is, once again, banking on popular appeal to help the project along with volunteer labor. Already, folks are lining up. Pete Thill, of Graeagle, has volunteered, writing to Kliejunas, “I spent one of the best summers of my life stationed at Crocker GS on the fire crew in 1966. … Most of us lived in the existing station house, using it as our work center. We worked fire patrols, fought wild land fires, handed out campfire permits when appropriate, and kept the station grounds and Crocker campground clean.”

Another volunteer, Susan Purcell, of Reno, told Kliejunas that she was drawn to Crocker GS “because, on occasion, my father (now deceased) talked of riding through the area on horseback with a packhorse on numerous occasions during the 1930s. He stopped by once or twice and was always invited in for coffee and sometimes dinner, and he remembered sleeping in a barn near the house. There was a small spring that supplied water for the house, and a small creek in the meadow where his horses were hobbled for the night.”

 

Solitude and multitude

Although I am attracted to lookouts for the solitude they promise, that experience is the result of a multitude of people invested in maintaining these historic structures.

The appeal of lookouts is undeniable, but what exactly is it about them that pulls so strongly at such a variety of people?

The view, of course. While it can be beautiful, inspiring, perhaps romantic, I think it’s the perspective that the view affords that is the real draw. You can take in landscape-scale phenomena like fire and water, trace their paths and effects.

Such a view nudges you toward the sublime. It’s easy to feel very small in a tiny, glass-walled room on top of a tower on top of an exposed mountaintop. And when the wind blows, which it will, and the lightning crashes, which it might, you can feel downright puny and insignificant.

Which leads me to one of the most interesting aspects of lookouts — the dynamic between enclosure and exposure, the way all that space outside can turn your gaze inward.

And that is why, although I may enjoy visiting lookouts in the company of others, I will continue to visit them alone.

More information aboutBlack Mountain Lookout.

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