Minn. fire tower wins historic site designation

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Pequot Fire Tower. Image: Minnesota’s Historical Fire Lookout Towers (CC BY-ND 3.0)

By Eric Freedman

For more than eight decades, the Pequot Fire Tower has stood sentinel in Minnesota, a Depression-era legacy essential to forest safety and, later, an attraction drawing tourists to its 100-foot-tall structure.

Now it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places, “the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation,” according to the National Park Service, which administers the federal program.

In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps erected the steel tower in Pequot Lakes, Crow Wing County, to replace a shorter 1927 tower. It sits atop one of the highest hills in the area, surrounded by privately and publicly owned woodlands and farmland, including a 40-acre parcel of forested state land. Spotters can see for 15 miles in every direction.

The Pequot Fire Tower was one of 11 lookout towers in the 2 million-acre Brainerd Ranger District, which was threatened by hundreds of forest fires each year. Only three others still stand.

Keith Argow, who chairs the board of directors of the Forest Fire Lookout Association which supported the designation, calls such fire towers “lighthouses of the land” and “landmarks of the forest” that deserve recognition.

“To us they’re a symbol of the enduring permanence of forestry. We’re talking about real land stewardship, links in the ecosystem, wildlife corridors,” Argow said. “The lookouts are a reminder that this is important. It’s part of our habitat.”

Under National Park Service regulations, sites placed on the national register must be significant “in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering and culture” and “possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.”

The nomination said the Pequot tower “played an instrumental role in the detection and suppression of forest fires between 1935 and 1970” and “is associated with the New Deal’s unprecedented dedication of public resources to forestry and nature resource conservation in Minnesota.”

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Forestry Division staffed the Pequot tower during the 2015 spring wildlife season after a hiatus when it was unused from 2008 to 2014. Within a few weeks of its reopening in 2015, a spotter reported a major fire that required two airplanes sand 20 firefighters to control, according to the national register nomination.

It’s no longer staffed.

The Pequot tower was one of the state’s last working fire towers, said Paul Lundgren, the Forestry Division’s wildfire section manager and a former forester at its Pequot Lakes field station.

“We struggle as a division. What are we going to do with the towers that are out there? They have historical value — but how many? Some have been sold and removed but most are still standing.”

Why was the tower built in Pequot Lakes? Because of its “strategic location” and expansive viewshed, the nomination said. “Forest fires in the area were common and “handicapped the region’s recovery from clear-cut logging by destroying settlements, preventing forest regeneration, wrecking game habitat, opening the land to soil erosion and degrading water quality.”

The nomination said, “The tower protected resources critical to the development of one of the state’s most important recreational areas, the Brainerd Lakes region,” while also protecting “timber resources critical to the area’s commercial forestry.”

But no longer.

That’s because technology has made the Pequot tower obsolete.

Lundgren said that in pre-cellphone times, towers were the “number-one detection method.” Then came the widespread use of airplanes to watch for fire.

And now, said Forestry Division’ assistant area supervisor Steve Bartz, “In this area around Pequot, there are a lot of people, a lot of cabin owners, a lot of summer people who come in, so the vast majority of our calls come from 911.

“It’s the quickest way to do it,” Bartz said.

As for wildfires, DNR experts said Minnesota lucked out this year.

The spring 2017 wildfire season “was almost non-existent. The numbers were about half of what they normally are,” Bartz said.

And Lundgren said, “This is one of those years — maybe one in five or one in six — where it’s non-eventful. It was not an elevated fire season.”

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