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DEC announces opening of Berry Hill Fire Tower in Chenango County

The Berry Hill Fire Tower is now open to visitors in Chenango County.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos today announced that Berry Hill fire tower in the town of McDonough, Chenango County, is now open for recreation after the completion of a wide range of interior and exterior upgrades to enhance safety and accessibility.

“New York’s fire towers are beloved by visitors both interested in their history and the spectacular views they provide,” said Commissioner Seggos. “With this restoration complete, renewed access to the Berry Hill fire tower will afford visitors of all ages the opportunity to connect to the past, while enjoying the rural landscape in Central New York State.”

Berry Hill is the only fire tower open for recreation on public lands in Central New York, and at an elevation of 1,960 feet, is one of the highest points in Chenango County. The tower is a 59-foot, three-inch tall International Derrick tower, originally erected in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps for fire protection. The viewshed from the fire tower stretches across Broome, Cortland, Delaware, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga, Otsego, and Tioga counties.

The upgrades were supported by $125,000 from NY Works and include projects to improve accessibility and restore the tower to enhance safety and recreation opportunities. Site upgrades include resurfaced driveway and parking areas; accessible stone dust path from the upper parking area to the base of the tower; accessible picnic table, bench, and informational kiosk; new roof and renovated porch and siding on the observer cabin; and removal of all communications equipment. Upgrades to the tower’s exterior include new stairwell safety fencing, new metal grate treads and wooden landings on the stairwell, and new paint on the entire tower. Interior tower cab upgrades include a new entrance hatch and wooden floor, renovated map table, and all new windows.

For nearly a century, observers watched the forests of New York State from more than 100 fire towers perched atop the highest peaks, searching for the first signs of fire to report to Forest Rangers by phone. In the early 1970s, the state began using air surveillance to monitor fires. Fire towers were phased out beginning in the 1980s, and over time, the towers and their associated observers’ cabins began to deteriorate. The towers were either dismantled or closed to the public for safety. Today, volunteer-based initiatives across the state are working to help protect New York’s fire towers. These initiatives recognize that the towers represent the state’s history and heritage of forest protection and are a resource with the potential to attract visitors.

Berry Hill fire tower served as an active fire look-out station until the end of the 1988 season. In 1993, it was placed on the National Historic Lookout Register (US#54). The 1999 McDonough State Forest Unit Management Plan identified an objective of rehabilitating the fire tower to allow for public access. Before making the structural improvements, it was necessary to remove and relocate communications equipment from the fire tower.

Through an agreement with DEC, the New York State Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association will provide volunteer stewardship services at Berry Hill. Volunteers will help maintain the facility and provide educational information to visitors. On days when a steward is on-site, motor vehicle access to the upper parking area may be permitted and the observer cabin will be open for visitation. The site also features an information kiosk, bench, and picnic table for visitors to enjoy. Off-road parking is available for approximately eight vehicles at the base of the fire tower’s driveway. The driveway is about 1,000 feet long and open for pedestrian access with a moderate uphill climb. The fire tower is open for public access year-round, from sunrise to sunset.

Berry Hill fire tower is located near McDonough State Forest and Bowman Lake State Park. The Finger Lakes Hiking Trail crosses through both the forest and park and extends past the entrance to Berry Hill along Tower Road.