Volunteers renovating historic Idaho lookout

Volunteers renovating historic Idaho lookout
Volunteers work on Spyglass Lookout (Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service)

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) — The question tossed out by the Lutherhaven Ministries executive director seemed innocent enough.

"What are you guys doing with Spyglass?" Bob Baker asked in a phone call to Forest Service employee Steve Matz.

Then, a few years ago, not much.

The historic lookout tower, the groundhouse where staff once lived, and outhouse had gone unused for more than 20 years.

Vandals seemed to be the primary visitors to the site sitting on Spyglass Peak in the upper reaches of the North Fork Coeur d'Alene River basin. They spray-painted, hacked, broke, shot, and even tossed furniture from the lookout office above.

For Matz, the destruction was heartbreaking.

There were once around 100 lookouts in the Coeur d'Alene region, and they were key to the Forest Service's fire defense plans. But they gradually became unnecessary, replaced by airplanes, helicopters and an expanding road system that allowed vehicles to access high country, where drivers could scout for flames.

Today, there are only three lookouts left in the region: Spyglass; Little Guard, which dates back to 1919, about nine miles north of Shoshone Camp on the east side of the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River; and Spades, built in 1923, about 12 miles northeast of Coeur d'Alene.

So when Matz received that phone call from Baker asking about Spyglass, he said, "it literally was like a prayer from heaven."

"We were both interested in the same thing," Matz said. "For Bob to come to me with an offer to get grants, bring in money, to have their crews do the work and help sponsor this thing, it literally was a godsend."

And a good deal, too.

The Idaho Panhandle National Forests have partnered with Lutherhaven Ministries and the Forest Fire Lookout Association to renovate the three historic structures dating back to the 1920s at Spyglass Lookout, which is at 5,300 feet of elevation.

Matz, now retired from the Forest Service, is leading volunteers from Shoshone Base Camp, the Forest Fire Lookout Association and Forest Service employees performing the work.

Through Lutherhaven's efforts, two regional grants were awarded totaling more than $25,000. Additional funding was granted by the Forest Fire Lookout Association and combined with funding from the Forest Service, which enabled the groups to begin work on the site this year.

Efforts so far have focused on the 14' by 14' groundhouse, its walls covered with graffiti and in rough shape after years of neglect. The foundation was replaced, along with some support beams and siding. The flooring was torn up and will be replaced, as will the cedar shake roof.

Brush has been cleared, trees removed, trash hauled away.

It's a slow process, though, said Fred Simmet, Forest Service maintenance worker.

Damage and deterioration due to weather, vandals and time, was more than anticipated, so trying to preserve pieces of history while removing rotted or vandalized lumber was tricky.

"We're trying to salvage boards, we've saving as much as we can of the original building," Simmet said on a sunny, hot Tuesday morning as he oversaw restoration efforts with about 15 youth from Shoshone Base Camp. "It gets to be a challenge when you're hoping to replicate what you have."

The restoration will take several years. Along with saving the lookout and groundhouse, a goal is to incorporate the site into the forest's recreational cabin rental program, which generates funding for maintenance on-site.

Lutherhaven Ministries will be the caretakers of the site.

Signs explaining the project will be posted, and a reinforced gate on the last, quarter-mile road leading to the lookout will hopefully stop further vandalism.

Spyglass Lookout is a two-hour, 20-minute drive from Coeur d'Alene. Follow the Coeur d'Alene River Road, go past the historic McGee Ranger Station, and next, Road 265, a bumpy, windy, narrow, 7-mile uphill climb. At the top, guests are rewarded with sweeping views of the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene Basin. Fir, larch, pine and spruce trees stand tall all around.

Claire Pitner, Forest Service recreational planner, has visited Spyglass several times since work began. While much remains to do, the transformation is under way.

"It's looking quite a bit different," she said Tuesday, the last day on the project for the youth volunteers this summer. "I think next year we'll be able to make a lot of progress, based on what we've done this year."

An engineer's report on the 50-foot lookout tower indicates the support posts are sound. Only the cross braces might need to be replaced. Should the posts need to be replaced, it could cost around $100,000.

"Once we have the tower stabilized, it's very easy to go up and rebuild the vandalism there," Matz said.

Baker discussed for a decade the possibly of restoring Spyglass. Funding and labor were the issues. This year, they had the staffing, the resources — their camp is an hour's drive to Spyglass — and grant money.

"Now was the time to make it happen or the lookout was going down," Baker said.

The tower, he said, was too rare to allow it to fall.

"How many are there like that?" he asked.

Today, three, but soon, two. Spades is marked for removal due to vandalism.

"It's disappointing we can't preserve historic facilities like these," Pitner said.

Spyglass is absolutely worth saving, Matz said.

"It's significant locally and nationally for the Forest Service," he said.

About 100 lookouts were built throughout the Coeur d'Alene region up to the 1930s following the devastating 1910 fire.

"On almost every range, to the next horizon you couldn't see beyond, there would be another lookout," he said.

The restoration of Spyglass aims to put things back as they were. Lumber is being cut to dimensions used for the Spyglass structures more than six decades ago.

"You won't be able to tell the difference between what we do, and what was there back the 1930s and 40s," Matz said.

Again, he praised Baker for taking the lead.

"Without Lutherhaven, this never would have happened," he said.

Baker is glad to be involved.

The project matches the mission at Shoshone Base Camp, which operates Idaho Servant Adventures, a program that brings youth from around the country to North Idaho for public service projects.

"What better place to get kids outdoors than to give them a mountaintop experience," he said.

Baker said it's about more than just putting kids to work. It's about building relationships. They talk about God, about faith, about life.

"It's all about building leaders, and that's what we do," he said.

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Information from: Coeur d'Alene Press, http://www.cdapress.com

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.