FORT KENT, Maine — The state’s plan to upgrade communication technology in the North Woods has raised concerns among officials and outdoor enthusiasts over the fate of the historic Deboullie Mountain fire tower.
According to Richard Thompson, chief information officer with the Maine Office of Information Technology, plans to consolidate and boost emergency and law enforcement communications in Maine are still, quite literally, on the drawing board and there remains a lengthy and public approval process to complete.
“There has been sketched out a communications tower for Deboullie Mountain,” Thompson said. “It was large and would be powered by a solar array [and] when you looked at that sketch it looks pretty substantial; I can understand why people are wondering if that mars the landscape.”
Thompson said he was not aware until Thursday that there was a fire tower at the top of Deboullie, only that there are radio repeaters on the mountain.
“The state is not tearing [the fire tower] down,” Will Harris, director of the Maine Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, said. “It is on the Register of National Lookout Towers and it is in the middle of God’s country, as far as I am concerned.”
Deboullie Mountain is within the public lands Deboullie Management Unit of T15R9 WELS about 30 miles southwest of Fort Kent.
Harris concedes the Office of Information Technology’s efforts in renovating the state’s two-way communication network — dubbed MSCommNet — have raised concerns among those familiar with the Deboullie area.
“In the OIT’s initial proposal Deboullie was one of the locations mentioned because there was already a radio transmitter on the tower,” Harris said. “It was proposed as one of the places for a bigger tower that will accommodate a bigger, more robust system.”
Harris said he and Thompson met last week over the issue and the OIT information officer is “very responsive to our concerns” and has pledged to work with other agencies in finding alternate locations for an array.
“We are not saying it won’t be Deboullie definitively,” Harris said. “But Mr. Thompson knows we have grave concerns.”
The current fire tower was erected in 1929 and manufactured by the Aermotor Corporation. The 48-foot steel tower was staffed every year until the mid 1980s when the state switched to aerial fire surveillance.
A cabin once used by fire tower staff remains at the top of the mountain.
“The tower is a significant attraction to the area and its loss would quickly erase any reminders of Maine’s rich forest fire detection history,” Bill Cobb, director of the Maine chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, said. “This history is especially important to the north woods where the logging of Maine’s forests was so dependent on the fire detection delivered by these towers.”
Cobb said his group has been monitoring the MSCommNet project and had requested information on potential tower sites.
“Deboullie was listed as potentially being removed to make way for a new radio tower,” Cobb said. “FFLA is gathering information about the proposals and awaiting any decisions.”
Generations of hikers have climbed to the tower’s observation deck to enjoy a panoramic view of the North Maine Woods.
“Environmental groups are going to go ape if the state tries to do anything to that tower,” Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, whose district includes Deboullie Mountain, said. “It’s in the middle of a geological preserve and it has serious historic and sentimental value.”
Jackson is pleased the state agencies are backing away from any move to remove the tower and vows he will do whatever he can to make sure the tower remains.
“From my standpoint they will not be doing it,” he said. “I think they have to find a different place to put up a communications tower other than Deboullie.”
Harris said the entire project is safety driven as the current radio system is “sort of falling down around the [Maine Department of Public Safety’s] ears.
“The idea is to consolidate all the state systems,” he said. “It’s a good idea.”
That would include radio communication for Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Maine Forest Service and the Maine State Police.
Both Thompson and Harris said there is a long way to go to take the project from paper to reality.
“I’ve met with the Office of Information Technology to start the conversations about the project and our concerns with Deboullie Mountain,” Harris said. “We will be doing a lot of talking about this before anything gets done.”
For his part Thompson said his office plans to address all those concerns.
“We talked with the Department of Conservation and they were clear they would not approve anything at this point,” Thompson said. “I was equally clear with them that my office would work with them on that site or if we had to use another site we would.”
Jackson said he has stressed to all agencies the importance of keeping his office informed every step of the way.
“I told them I want 100 percent to be kept in the loop,” he said. “There must be another site out there somewhere that is as good as Deboullie.”
“There are plenty of reasons not to use Deboullie,” he said. “There are a lot of mountains up there.”