COLUMN: Group looks out for lookouts

Group looks out for lookouts

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With the “Polar Express” rolling through Montana the past couple of weeks, forest fires may be far from most folks’ daily concerns.

The Northwest Montana Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, however, plans year-round to help keep potential wildfires under a watchful eye by preserving these historic structures.

Last year the chapter completed seven projects and numerous assessments, setting a course for future lookout restoration efforts. One major project was replacing the stairs on the Little Napa lookout on the Swan State Forest. The new stairs have a much improved pitch and are much safer.

Substantial improvements to Firefighter Lookout in the Hungry Horse Ranger District were also tackled. A crew sanded and scraped the cabin’s exterior, catwalk and railings down to bare wood and applied two fresh coats of paint. The brass threshold panel even got a good polishing.

Apgar Lookout is one of the most easily accessible lookouts in Glacier National Park. Last summer volunteers repainted the entire exterior, reglazed the windows and replaced shutter boards. The results — as well as the views — are amazing and definitely worthy of the seven-mile round-trip hike.

A lookout assessment blitz was conducted last year in the Kootenai National Forest with the help of Cabinet Back Country Horsemen and Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Local Lookout Association board chair Chuck Manning said there are about 50 structures in the forest and about 18 were checked out.

“We’re hoping we can restore and bring back into some type of use some of those that are currently not being utilized, whether as shelters or possible rentals,” Manning said.

Bringing back to life these historic structures that have fallen out of use and been neglected is the Lookout Association’s primary goal.

“We hate to see them disintegrate and melt into the landscape,” Manning said. “In the ’40s there were around 140 structures just on the Flathead National Forest. Following the Big Burn of 1910 just about every knob had a structure built on it. Today there are less than two-dozen lookouts on the Flathead Forest. We believe they’re worth preserving.

“If we can at least stabilize them so they don’t further deteriorate,” Manning added, “we can go back at a later point to do the actual restoration work.”

Last year volunteers traveled more than 9,400 miles and donated more than 1,200 hours to these tasks with the help of many partners, including the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Montana Wilderness Association, Flathead and Kootenai national forests, National Park Service, Montana History Foundation, Two Bear Air and more.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have good working relationships with these agencies and we want to recognize their cooperation. Without that and open communication we would not have been successful.”

The association is co-hosting the Wilderness Speaker Series that launches Wednesday, Jan. 25, at Flathead Valley Community College with a presentation on the mountain goats of Northwest Montana by Kalispell wildlife biologist Jessy Coltrane. The program begins at 7 p.m. in the Arts and Technology Building. It’s free of charge and everyone is welcome.

Several brewery fundraisers are also on tap this year. The first is Feb. 15 at Tamarack Brewing in Lakeside. Swing in, raise a pint (and a little money) and find out more about the Lookout Association’s work.

The local chapter started in 2012 and became part of the national organization the following year. It maintains an archivist/historian and gathers stories and photos of Northwest Montana lookouts. If you or your grandparents worked or perhaps honeymooned at a lookout, Beth Hodder would like to hear the story. Email

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Community editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or

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