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Land sale to save Gordon Fire Tower

Looking up through the staircases of the 100-foot Gordon Fire Tower that could soon become property of the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary after the Douglas County forestry committee approved the sale of land on which the tower stands. The tower was built in the mid-1930s and decommissioned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in late 2015. Maria Lockwood

In late 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced plans to decommission 72 fire outlook towers. While a few towers were set aside for preservation, none of them were located in Northwestern Wisconsin.

Now, the Gordon Fire Tower is getting a second chance after the Douglas County forestry committee approved the sale of about 1.41 acres of land on which the 100-foot tower was built in the 1930s to the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary.

"The county issued easements in 1935 for the purposes of that fire tower," said Jon Harris, director of Forestry and Natural Resources for the county. "With that easement, the private landowner to the south also issued an easement for access for that tower site."

Harris said the county worked with Brian Finstad of the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary, first looking at a land exchange. However, that didn't work out.

"The county wasn't interested in having any tower on our land where we would be liable for any maintenance," Harris said. Working with a surveyor, he said the county designed a parcel of land that would encompass the tower if it fell in any direction.

In addition, he talked to state officials who agreed the tower would be put to a good public purpose.

The tower is located between County Highway Y and Bass Lake Road.

To ensure the public is protected in the sale of county-owned land, Harris said the price, $4,230, is double the fair market value for the land.

"It's really unique," Finstad said. "No one's done this in the Midwest at all. I can't find one in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Michigan."

Finstad grew up near the fire tower. He said there was a sign at the bottom that said "do not climb," but at the top of the tower, there was a guest book.

"The saving grace of that tower is it's a staircase tower. If it were a ladder tower, you couldn't do anything with it," Finstad said.

He said he got involved when he emailed the woman responsible for the disposition of the fire towers at the DNR. "She emailed me back — it was a Tuesday — she said it was going to bid for scrap metal on Thursday," Finstad said. "So, this is how great they are to work with ... she just stopped everything, said take a year, come up with a plan."

During that time, he said it was learned that fire towers out west are repurposed for camping. He said while that isn't likely because of the small cab at the Gordon Fire Tower, people could still camp at the base of it and go up to use the tower for birdwatching or as a writing retreat.

"My first question was liability ... so I contacted Holden Insurance," Finstad said. "I kind of thought that it was going to stop there to be honest, but I thought we've got to explore everything." He learned a commercial policy would cover a fire tower.

Finstad said Friends of the Bird Sanctuary has done some fundraising, which covered the costs for the land survey, but he didn't want to take people's money without the forestry committee's approval for the sale. The group is planning to have a dunk tank during Gordon's Good Neighbor Days slated for July 6-8 this year.

Donations can also be made to FOTBS, P.O. Box 116, Gordon, WI 54838. Write "Save the Fire Tower" in the memo line or make a donation using PayPal at the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary website, fotbs.org.

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