PARK FALLS, USA — Think of it as the ideal gift for the outdoors person whohas everything. Something that will get you noticed, and put you above the crowd. About a hundred feet above the crowd. The item in question is a 100-foot tall retired fire lookout tower in PriceCounty that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has put up for bids.
The Kennedy Fire Tower, located west of Park Falls, has been offered for sale to the highest bidder by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The structure, built in the mid- 1930s, has not been used in several years and is to be removed because of liability concerns. Bids on the area landmark are to be opened Feb. 23 at the Park Falls DNR office. (Photo: Steve Belcher)
Known as the Kennedy Fire Tower, the steel-frame structure looms above the forest about seven miles west of Park Falls, on County Hwy. E, an area landmark since it was erected in the mid 1930s. According to DNR Area Forest Specialist Gary Vander Wyst, of the DNRs Park Falls Ranger station, the tower has not been used in several years — the victim of more modern fire spotting and suppression methods — and has become a liability issue for the department. We have had to remove the bottom three flights of rungs to avoid vandalism and the liability of people just wandering up to the top to have a look around, he said. Vander Wyst said the Park Falls tower was actually the second such structure hes been called on to take down recently. The other one was over in Winter last year, he said. It was 92 feet tall, but it didnt have the cabin on top. Vander Wyst said there has been no shortage of ideas on uses for the tower. Weve had folks talking about turning it into a deer stand, and one fellow was talking about putting his mother-in-law up there, he said. The possibilities are endless. A vacation cabin in the clouds, one with the best view in the county, perhaps. That is, if you dont mind being struck by lightning from time to time.Thats why weve got a five-eighths inch cable running 30 feet into the ground off of each leg, Vander Wyst said. The Kennedy Fire Tower was first built at a time when a spate of conservation activity was taking place in the Northwoods, aimed at ending the cycle of wildfires that for generations had devastated millions of acres of forest land in the United States. At one time, over 200 fire lookout towers stood guard over the forests of Wisconsin. Now, one by one, across the country, many are being replaced by modern fire prevention techniques, aerial surveillance of the forest during times of high fire danger and better reporting of fires by members of the public. They are still structurally sound, its just that we dont need them any more, Vander Wyst said. Weve got more modern technology to detect fires. Some of these abandoned towers have been pulled down for scrap, but others have been reused for their interpretive value, like the Mountain Lookout Tower in the Chequamegon- Nicolet National Forest, which is open to the public, in Oconto County, and the Fifield Fire Tower on Hwy. 70, five miles east of Fifield. The Fifield tower has been placed on the National Register of Historical Places by the USDA Forest Service. The tower at the old DNR headquarters located on South Case Ave. in Park Falls still stands. Others have been disassembled, piece by piece, and rebuilt for private use by resorts and other activities. Just what will happen to the Kennedy Tower wont be known until the bids are opened at the Park Falls Ranger Station at 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 23; but one thing is certain, say the bid documents, go it must. The bid documents call for the structure to be removed from the premises within 90 days after the bid is awarded.
While its likely that the tower will be scrapped for its metal value –scrap steel continues to draw a premium price because of demand from India andChina — there is an outside chance that the winning bidder may have analternative use in mind. Whatever they want to do with it, Vander Wyst said. My function in thisprocess is to have it removed. However they do it is up to them and whateverthey do with it is their prerogative. Judging from the response he got when the Winter tower was sold off, thepotential is limited only by the imagination of the winning bidder. After the rumor got around about the first one going down, people were all ofa sudden saying things like, hey, it would make a great whatever, and we weregoing, Aww, geeze. Everything from a tree house for the kids to some placeto go sit and do your artistry. The appraised value for the tower has been put at one dollar in the biddocuments. Vander Wyst said potential bidders are welcome to contact him byphone at 762-1360 to ask questions or obtain bid documents, which will beaccepted up to the time of bid opening. Those documents give an almost painful justification for the towers impendingdemise. Forestry has determined that this tower is no longer needed. It is only aliability and hazard, and would not be replaced, the bid document laconicallyreads. But that terse appraisal doesnt begin to account for the towers pastservices to the forest. According to Vander Wyst, the Kennedy Fire Tower has aproud tradition of nipping forest fires in the bud. The fact of its current obsolescence does not detract from the historicimportance of the old structure, standing tall against the horizon, evervigilant. There is something noble and almost heroic in the memory of a lonekeen-eyed watcher with a pair of binoculars, endlessly searching the horizon fora telltale plume of smoke, checking the grid maps, and triangulating troublespots with a primitive alidade survey device. It wasnt always a guy either, Vander Wyst noted. There were ladiesthat also did a fine job at it. It was a solitary existence for the patient sentinels, alone with their thoughtsand a hand-cranked telephone, or later a radio at hand, ready to report a blaze.But their presence was crucial; being able to spot a fire at its earliest stagescould mean the difference between an easily controlled spot fire and anall-consuming conflagration. Those glories are past now, and the reality is that, deprived of its originalpurpose, the tower is now little more than an attractive nuisance and aliability that DNR managers must deal with. Vander Wyst said about eight other towers remain in use in the local dispatcharea. They continue to provide coverage of the Park Falls area. There are enough others in the geographic area to provide good coverage,he said. But Im not saying it wont be missed.