Bitterroot Forest nominates three fire lookouts for historic register

Bitterroot Forest nominates three fire lookouts for historic register


HAMILTON — Three more lookouts within the Bitterroot National Forest are being recommended for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gird Point, Medicine Point, and St. Mary’s lookouts are “a physical reminder of the agency’s efforts to manage and protect the areas under its supervision from the devastating effects of wildfire,” according to the listing application submitted by Janene Caywood.

She noted that this is part of an ongoing effort to list surviving “L-4” lookouts — the most popular style of live-in fire lookouts, with windows all around, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association — on the forest. The McCart Lookout east of Sula already is listed, and the Boulder Lookout is going through the process.

“We’ve been trying to get this done for a while, and finally got some heritage Stewardship Enhancement money from the region to prepare the cover form and individual nominations,” Caywood said. “We’ve combined with the Lolo forest to do this, so there’s five lookouts on the Lolo and six on the Bitterroot.

“It’s really important to convey to the public how few of these lookouts are left standing. There used to be hundreds of them throughout the region; the Bitterroot has the best remaining collection with seven lookouts. Lolo only has four left, and that’s kind of a shame.”

She noted that ironically, many of the fire lookouts have burned down, since they’re susceptible to wildfires based on their location. Both Medicine Point and Gird Point survived wildfires around them.

St. Mary’s Peak’s lookout, which is still in use at an elevation of 9,351 feet, originally was constructed in 1934 atop 40-foot poles. The “cab” blew off during a windstorm in 1951, and a newer, 1936-pattern L-4 cabin was reinstalled atop a stone tower. It’s staffed by volunteers during the summer fire season.

“You can still find little splinters of wood and pieces of glass from when it blew off in 1951,” Caywood said. “The cab went 100 feet down the mountain.”

The lookout is inside of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, with sweeping views of the Bitterroot Mountains to the west and the Bitterroot Valley to the east. In the one-room interior, the original maple floor is intact, and it has a platform bed with drawers beneath for storage. In 1998, volunteers restored the exterior of the lookout, and the cedar shingle roof was replaced in 2008.

“People do this as a day hike, and the building is open during certain hours so people can go inside,” Caywood said. “It’s a great hike to get there — about 4 miles to get in.”

The Medicine Point Lookout is west of Sula between the east and west forks of the Bitterroot River, at an elevation of 8,405 feet. It was built in 1939 on 10-foot cross-braced log towers, and recently was restored to its original style. It offers views of the Bitterroot Mountains and the southern Bitterroot Valley.

“It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and we know that because the base of the single ladder is stamped with the date and the CCC sign,” Caywood said.

Like many of these lookouts, it has one room with a bed platform, a propane woodstove for heat, and is furnished with basic cooking pots, pans and utensils. It’s a 4-mile hike to the lookout.

Both the Medicine Point and Gird Point lookouts are available for the public to rent.

“Medicine Point is a beautiful hike in if you’re looking for a wilderness experience,” Caywood said. “Gird Point isn’t much of a hike since it’s close to the road.”

The Gird Point Lookout on the Darby District also is a 1931-pattern L-4 cabin on pole towers built in 1939 on a 10-foot tower, and is 11 miles east of Hamilton at 7,702 feet. It has a 360-degree view of the Sapphire, Bitterroot, and Anaconda-Pintler mountain ranges. Visitors can drive to within half a mile of the lookout, then hike a moderate grade to it. The structure was restored, beginning in 2001, and is furnished with vintage 1940s lookout belongings.

“It has a concrete base at the bottom of the ladder, which is stamped with the date but no CCC, so we can’t say for sure that they built it, but it’s likely,” Caywood said.

It has no electricity or water, but propane canisters are supplied for cooking and lighting. A 2003 restoration replaced the log tower legs and rebuilt the catwalk.

Earlier this week, Ravalli County Commissioners signed off on letters of support for listing the lookouts. They initially hesitated out of concerns that listing might create issues during fire season, but later unanimously signed off on the effort.

“When they’re needed in the middle of fire season, they won’t be tied up in a morass of paperwork?” Commissioner Greg Chilcott asked Matt Werle, the Bitterroot National Forest’s archaeologist.

Werle responded that satellite and aerial detection are much more rapid, and in the 1980s the Forest Service switched to using that technology instead of relying on lookouts.

“This wouldn’t change the management; it’s sort of a formality,” Werle said. “We get a plaque that goes outside — many of them are in our rental program — and people can say they were at a national historic place.

“People feel very strongly about it and appreciate it. Listing also can bring in some money for preservation.”

The nominations will go before the Montana Historical Society at its Jan. 26 meeting, and if it supports the listing, the proposal will be forwarded to the National Park Service for a final decision.

“It goes to the Keeper of the National Register in D.C.,” Werle said. “Most of the time that’s basically a rubber stamp after it gets past the state level.”

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