The Skookum Butte fire lookout, perched on a pile of pancake-like and tumbled talus rocks, is getting a facelift.
The lookout was constructed on the Lolo National Forest in 1928, high in the windswept mountains near the Montana/Idaho border. It’s a rare, “Grange Hall” style of lookout, also known as an L-5, and a predecessor to the L-4 style. It’s one of only two intact L-5 lookouts on the Lolo National Forest and one of three in all of Region 1.
“These L-5’s were one of the first, if not the first, where folks could do their job and sleep inside the lookout,” said Sydney Bacon, an archeaologist on the Lolo National Forest.
Its unique style includes five courses of large logs that form the base of the walls. The upper half had five heavy leaded windows on three sides, plus three windows and a door on the fourth. Wooden shutters protected the glass during the off-season. The lookout includes breathtaking views of Lolo Creek and the Graves Range.
It hasn’t been used as a fire lookout since the 1960s, and the years haven’t been kind to the 14-by-14-foot log structure with a gable roof.
“This is still an active talus slope, so even during the last 50 years, the rocks have fallen, crushing or compromising the lookout,” Bacon said. “Some of the windows were broken from natural events and people trying to break things. Then, over the last several years you can see the front of it was lagging, and we’re trying to make it square.”
Jack Poppen, a member of the Region 1 Historic Preservation Team, added that parts of the flooring are missing, and the subfloor is compromised.
“But it’s good enough for now,” he added.
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This year’s work is the first phase in a three-part restoration project for the Skookum Butte lookout, which is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and already is on the National Historic Lookout Register.
The plan calls for repairing and stabilizing the rock foundation; replacing severely checked or rotten logs; re-roofing with cedar shingles; replacing the chimney jack, stovepipe and stove; and replacing ridge flashing, a weather barrier.
What will be at least a two-year project is being done by the preservation team, with help from Passport in Time volunteers and the Missoula Chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen. It’s being funded with a $20,000 Heritage Stewardship Enhancement grant, a $500 Forest Fire Lookout Association grant, and an estimated $14,570 in-kind contribution from the Passport in Time volunteers.
At this point, the future use of the structure isn’t known. It could be eligible for the cabin rental program, or it could just be preserved for the public’s general use.
“My hope is we open the door for the public to understand more of our use of renewable resources,” Poppen said. “It’s a really popular place for people to hike to.”
Jen Hensiek, the Missoula District Ranger, said they have several groups that help sponsor or care for projects on the Lolo National Forest and encouraged anyone with interest in the Skookum Butte lookout to contact the district for more information.
“If we can find the right group to help take care of Skookum Butte, that would be great,” Hensiek said.
Check the Missoulian’s Sunday edition for more on the Skookum Butte lookout.