By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
On Friday, April 19, the Kern Valley Museum will launch a very special display of both artistic and historical significance. “Eyes of the Forest – Sequoia’s Lookouts” will feature 28 original paintings forest lookouts both past and present from local artist and former Buck Rock Visitor Information Specialist Carla Aubrey, whose late husband Barry was also a long-time USFS Lookout Ranger, last stationed at Bald Mountain, where he trained other lookouts before his retirement. The exhibit, which will run until May 19, will culminate in a special day of celebration on Saturday, May 4, at the Kern Valley Museum from 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., located at 49 Big Blue Road in Kernville. Admission is free.
The exhibit itself is an evolution from a research project begun by the KV Museum, who joined forces with the Kern River Valley Historical Society and their lead curator Dianna Anderson, since both groups were completing the organization collection process at the same time and discovered many photographic crossovers from the history of the Forest Service and the Kern River Valley. As a result, the exhibit will also feature rare historical documents, photographs, and past news articles that have been painstakingly researched and assembled with the help and expertise of many Museum and KRVHS volunteers, including Margie Clack, retired USFS Information Officer, and John Newman, retired from both BLM and Sequoia USFS. “Margie deserves a lot of the credit for making this happen,” says Kathy Allison, a research partner in the museum’s exhibit and founder of the Buck Rock Foundation. “She took this on at her own expense. She doesn’t want any credit, but she deserves all of it.” Clack disagrees. “John Newman was the spearhead behind this endeavor. It was his idea to start having rotating historical Forest Service displays at the Museum,” she says. “He put together the first display on the “Mountain Line” or telephone line based on the 1916 Sequoia Forest map. It showed how the lines connected to older ranger cabins. Natural progressions to lookouts came next.”
Newman, Clack, Aubrey, Anderson and the rest of the team of dedicated volunteers then collaborated with the Buck Rock Foundation to put together the exhibit to “help preserve as well as educate the public on the historical importance of Forest Service Lookouts,” says Allison. Lookouts, which “reference both the structures and the people who manned them,” date all the way back to 1876, when the first fire lookout was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad on Red Mountain near Donner Summit to watch for train fires. In 1905, Chief Forester Gilford Pinchot reorganized the forest reserves into the USFS, and within three years, California had constructed its first two forest fire lookout locations. In the 1930’s with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Civilian Conservation Corps, lookouts became one of their top priorities, “determined to put a fire lookout on top of every mountain to protect valuable timber resources.”
Lookouts became the primary fire detection method used by the USFS for decades, manned by eagle-eye rangers who utilized maps and charting methods that helped spot and pinpoint fires with amazing accuracy. One of the tools used to position such fires will be featured in the museum’s exhibit. The research team managed to procure an actual Osborne Fire Finder from a dismantled lookout and brought it down exclusively for the exhibit. “It’s like a big compass,” says Allison. “They were used to plot the location of any fire we’d spot. They’re pretty rare. You just don’t find them anymore, but we managed to get one.”
These vital lookouts grew in number, reaching their heyday in the 1950s, when there were approximately 8,000 spread across the United States forests. Their decline began in the 60’s and 70’s, when more advanced aerial technology methods began to take over. Once there were over 600 lookouts in California alone, but now there are just over 100 remaining, with only nine in active use. These nine active lookouts are all included in Aubrey’s original oil paintings.
For her part, Allison founded the Buck Rock Foundation as a grass roots non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of lookouts, especially in the southern Sierras and Sequoia National Forest. “Buck Rock itself was a lookout that the USFS had abandoned due to lack of funding. The foundation evolved from restoring and reestablishing Buck Rock to helping to preserve other lookouts,” says Allison. “The preservation process is a painstaking one. We have to stay within the ‘historic’ guidelines, apply for grants and funding to support the effort, as well as partner with the USFS and Park Service to help staff them with volunteers for visitors, coordinate fire prevention, and create educational experiences for students. A big part of our goal is to create public awareness. People love to go up and experience the lookouts for themselves.”
This love for, and desire to preserve the important history of the lookouts, is at the core of all those who contributed to this exhibit. “I’ve worked with the Buck Rock Foundation for years,” says Aubrey. “This whole thing started when somebody at the museum suggested we focus on lookouts, and I thought, “Well, that’s a great idea.” They’re a big part of our history, and they need saving. It started with just painting the nine existing, but the more I dig, the more I find. Now I’ve got twenty-eight. It just keeps growing.”
And the exhibit itself will continue to grow and evolve. Once the “Eyes of the Forest” finishes its run at the Kern Valley Museum on May 19, it will travel, with the hopes of promoting awareness, educating the public, and help in continuing preservation efforts for these landmark beacons of our American Forests.
For more information about the “Eyes of the Forest – Sequoia’s Lookouts” Exhibit, please contact the Kern Valley Museum at (760) 376-6683 or visit their website at www.kernvalleymuseum.org.
For more information on the Buck Rock Foundation, as well as their volunteer program and opportunities, you can visit their website, www.buckrock.org.