Last week I wrote about the joy of hiking on the well-maintained trails in our nearby state forests. These trails are groomed by several people who volunteer as trail maintainers assigned to various sections of the trail system.
I am one of the maintainers who move downed logs, saw branches, trim back thorns and occasionally pick up litter. My assigned section of the Finger Lakes Trail happens to be in the vicinity of Bowman Lake State Park.
I spend a considerable amount of time in and around Bowman Lake Park and have occasion to speak with many of the ‘happy campers’ at the facility. Nearly everyone loves the park and is impressed by the generous size and privacy of the campsites, the well-kept grounds, and the facilities. Surprisingly in our technologically savvy society, many visitors say the lack of cellular telephone service is also a plus.
During this year’s leaf-peeping season in late September I had a conversation at the park which was a bit concerning. I learned camping at the park during autumn may come to an end next year. This year the camping at Bowman Lake ended on the Columbus Day holiday weekend. There are reports next year’s overnight camping at Bowman Lake will cease on Labor Day 2020, more than a month earlier than usual; thirty-six camping nights earlier to be exact.
The shortened camping season is certainly a cost-cutting measure on someone’s part and we need to find who made this decision and convince them to reverse course before they make any more cutbacks. Reducing services and availability at the park should concern all of us. If you think Bowman Lake can’t shrivel up and disappear, let me remind you Chenango County once had a second state park; Hunt’s Pond State Park. That facility was in New Berlin and it was deemed obsolete by the NYS Parks and Recreation Department and it ceased operations as a park.
Bowman Lake attracts visitors and campers from near and far. It is those folks from afar who spend thousands of taxable dollars in our local economy, eating, buying vehicle fuel, and shopping. The Northeast Classic Car Museum has scores of Bowman Lake visitors annually, especially on the rainy days. For the sake of a portion of our local economy and as a recreational facility, Bowman Lake State Park needs to be protected and preserved.
A scant two miles from Bowman Lake State Park is the Berry Hill fire tower just off County Road 10 in Pharsalia. This is the only fire tower remaining in place in the nine counties of NYS DEC Region 7. This is a landmark attracting many visitors who might also be classified as would-be trespassers because the watchtower is no longer in use and is off-limits to visitors. According to the DEC, the official reason visitors are prohibited is because of high-power radio antennas affixed to the top of the tower.
Years ago, I was lucky to visit this fire tower in an official capacity when I was a deputy sheriff. Our patrols were required to check in with the wardens who lived at the tower during the fire season.
Their job was to scan the horizon looking for tell-tale puffs of smoke indicating a forest fire. If smoke was seen, the warden would contact other fire towers and then by using geometry they would triangulate the location of the smoke and send forest rangers to investigate.
Climbing the open, steel steps was nerve-racking, but the view from Berry Hill was spectacular, especially to the southeast where other fire towers in the Catskills were visible with telescopes. I believe the correct name of the optical instrument I looked through was a theodolite. At one time there were more than a hundred of these watchtowers scattered all over upstate New York. The last five staffed towers ceased operations in 1990. With no other use, some were taken down. Luckily, our local tower found a second job as a radio antenna signal repeater, saving it from scrap.
Recently, the high-power antennas were removed from the Berry Hill watchtower, and with no other official function, I fear the state may declare this tower useless and take it down. This would be a misdeed of the greatest proportion if this tower disappeared from its hilltop perch.
Readers should peruse the NYS DEC web page dedicated to the history of our state’s fire towers. Even the DEC recognizes the towers as “untapped resources with tremendous tourism potential.” (https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/100900.html). People drive for hours for a chance to climb a fire tower to see the view, to take photos, to have a picnic, and just to brag they have done it.
Presently only a few fire watch towers remain standing, and those are mostly because of grass root efforts of citizen volunteers who maintain the towers under the auspices of a local organization.
It’s not hard to imagine these two state assets disappearing to budget cuts just as did the Rogers Environmental Education Center in Sherburne a few years ago. Luckily a grassroots organization, the Friends of Rogers, saved that valuable facility.
If you feel as I do, that Bowman Lake State Park and the DEC Berry Hill fire tower deserve official attention, funding, and maintenance, please tell our local and state elected officials. Once these assets are gone, they’ll never come back.