Lookout stirs embers of debate
A fiery legal battle between the public and private sector may be smoldering in Zephyr Heights again.
The owner of a Lookout Road parcel holding Nevada’s last remaining fire lookout wants to pull the easement from the U.S. Forest Service. This could be the second court battle since 1980 in which Zephyr Cove Properties Inc. claims the Forest Service abandoned the property.
The company, led by board officers David and Harvey Whittemore, recently notified the federal agency that it has failed to maintain the 70-year-old lookout on the list of the National Register of Historic Places. The designation is made by the National Park Service.
“We’ll try to negotiate something to ultimately retain the fire lookout in some fashion, but we’re not fixed an anything,” Harvey Whittemore said from his Reno law office Thursday.
The Glenbrook man, the descendant of a well known family that helped organize the development of the Zephyr Heights area, said he’s “sensitive to the history of the lookout.”
“We’re open to all suggestions, especially with the legacy my grandparents created,” he said.
However, he’s not open to the Forest Service’s maintaining the site.
“They needed to man it in fire seasons, but their opportunity to do that is lost,” Whittemore said of the easement condition.
The easement was originally gained in 1932.
The Forest Service legal counsel in San Francisco said the Whittemores contacted the agency with the intention of the easement’s “going back to Zephyr Cove Properties.”
The road right-of-way extends 2,200 feet across Zephyr Cove Properties’ holdings.
Counsel Joshua Ryder has prepared an opinion on the legal challenge referred to his office in July.
“Their basic understanding is the easement has been terminated,” he said.
Whittemore feels they have a compelling case as the property owners, mentioning a concern of vandalism as one reason.
Rex Norman, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit spokesman, said fire officers have used the lookout “periodically, as the fire season warrants it.”
“This year it was used several times,” he said, listing days of lightning strikes and low humidity as examples.
During the Gondola and Showers fires, Norman said staff spent hours up in the lookout that also houses a PacBell Wireless center.
Pacific Bell maintains the structure and pays the Forest Service $2,600 annually to lease the 14-square-foot structure, which sits on a 1-acre parcel.
The Forest Service shares the lookout station with the Tahoe-Douglas Fire District.
The advent of fire air patrols, improved roads and engines, civilian fire detectors and increased operation costs have made firefighters’ manning lookout towers into a thing of the past.
The towers used to be the hub of fire detection. Severe fires in 1909 and 1910 led to the construction of the first Forest Service tower in California, built in 1911 on Banner Mountain in the Tahoe National Forest.
Leonard and Margaret Hoff, Nevada Division of Forestry summer employees who were also Idaho school teachers, were the first to man the Zephyr Cove fire lookout.
The tower personnel coordinated efforts with those who worked at the Angora and Stateline lookouts.
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