ALBANY - The state budget crisis could pose a threat to the fire towers atop Hurricane and St. Regis mountains, even as the Adirondack Park Agency considers ways to allow the historic structures to remain standing.
The APA Board of Commissioners' State Land Committee decided unanimously May 13 to move forward with public hearings regarding potential classification alternatives that could allow the towers to stay.
But even if APA finds a solution to the problem in the coming months,the fire towers' continued existence is anything but a sure bet - because the towers are the property of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, according to DEC Region 5 Chief Forester Tom Martin.
"The department has the care, custody and control of the Forest Preserve and the facilities on it," he said. "At one time there were 52 towers in the park and for management reasons the department removed a bunch of them. "
He said that despite the fact towers are allowed in certain classifications, DEC removed them anyway.
Assuming the figures from Gov. David Paterson's executive budget remain unchanged, DEC is poised to lose over 30 percent of its funding, compared to the 2009-10 budget.
Over the last two years, the DEC's budget allocation for supplies and contracting has plummeted 70 percent.
Both the Hurricane and St. Regis towers are in relative disrepair, and state officials estimate a single restoration could cost $50,000. Continued maintenance costs would also be a likely expense.
And Martin said cost is surely an issue.
"The biggest concern today are the budget issues and the long-term implications of the costs of these things," he said. "We would certainly look to private groups and local governments to assist us with tower restoration as they have with towers throughout the park."
Various expenses associated with maintenance and repair are substantial, he said, noting that helicopters, employed to transport labor and supplies to the sites, cost $1,500 per hour to operate.
Several of the remaining fire towers in the Adirondacks do have friends groups and some contribute money and labor to the cause, but DEC officials caution that over the long-term, the state ends up footing much of the bill.
The three-pronged APA proposal, which is open for public comment, could see the footprints of the towers classified as either historic or primitive.
Under the primitive designation, the towers would not be restored and would not allow public access, but would remain at their current location.
However, if classified as historic, the state would carry a responsibility to restore and maintain the towers in working condition to allow public access.
The third option is no action at all, and would result in the removal of the towers in accordance with the state Land Master Plan.
APA Commissioner Dick Booth said that given the slumping economy, he would like to see a fourth option that wouldn't require the state to make a financial commitment.
"We could put a postage stamp around a historic resource, recognize it's there, the state would not commit resource to managing it," Booth said. "It would become part of the Forest Preserve and eventually deteriorate back into the landscape."
DEC has removed towers that were in compliance with a SLMP designation, citing the prohibitive cost of restoration or maintenance.
Over 85 percent of the public comment received this year by DEC, in written and oral form, expressed support of retaining the fire towers. Proponents of keeping the towers consider them an important part of the region's cultural history. The opposition counters that they are in violation of the SLMP.