Flag Point No Longer a Rental

Due to a combination of vandalism and careless renters, the Forest Service is removing Flag Point Lookout from the rental program.

Flag Point is one of only three staffed lookouts in the Mt. Hood National Forest. I’ve been there twice before during the summer and fall, and it’s a pretty cool place.

During the winter it is available for rent, so in early May I made reservations to stay there in November. But on Tuesday, June 21 I got a message from Recreation.gov that my reservation had been canceled, although they provided no explanation whatsoever. A visit to Flag Point’s reservation page revealed the following:

Flag Point Lookout is undergoing the process of being removed from the reservation service. Reservations can no longer be made at this facility.

Then a short time later I got a call from a toll-free number. I had a feeling it would be Recreation.gov and I was right. As soon as I answered, a pre-recorded message that was about 60 seconds long started playing. I wish I could have recorded it somehow, but to summarize they said that due to repeated vandalism the lookout was being removed from the rental program and that my reservation was canceled. I thought they also said that the lookout would no longer be staffed in the summer (although that part turned out to be not true, or I mis-remembered). I called back Recreation.gov a little later, hoping someone could read me the message again, but apparently they didn’t have access to it because the only information they could tell me was that the facility was closed to reservations.

I couldn’t get through to the Barlow Ranger Station that day, but I finally reached someone there Wednesday morning. They told me a very different story and said the lookout was not being removed from the rental program because of vandalism, but because they couldn’t keep up with the maintenance. They also said it would be staffed in the summer. The person on the phone also thought that while no further reservations would be accepted, people who had already made reservations would get to keep them. When I told her Recreation.gov had canceled my reservation and issued a refund, she said she would find out more and get back to me, but I never heard anything further.

The official line from the Forest Service seems to be “this is because of vandalism.” Zach Urness, the outdoor writer for the Salem Statesman Journal, wrote an article on Wednesday. He spoke to the Mt. Hood National Forest spokeswoman, Laura Pramuk, who said “The repeated incidents of vandalism created a situation where repairing it, up to the standard required for rental, was just costing too much. It’s a shame we’re not able to keep it open.” She also said “The recreation budget is very tight — it’s either declining or flat even as expenses keep going up. That’s a factor in this decision. We have to look at all the things we need to fund, and in this case it just doesn’t add up.”

But in hearing from others, it wasn’t just vandalism that was a problem. In fact it seems that careless renters were more of a problem than vandals. I posted the article on Facebook in the Forest Fire Lookout Enthusiasts Group. Someone who had rented the lookout last winter said “Just an observation, but damage we saw was likely from inexperienced renters. One window broke twice, maybe from firewood swinging in or to bypass a stuck door. The new fireplace tile busted in just a few days from indoor chopping. The hatch hasp was clipped off, and someone even took bolt cutters to the hatch grid itself. Earlier in 2015 someone also managed to break the stovepipe somehow.” They also said, “Flag Point last winter suffered from broken windows, damaged tile from indoor chopping, left behind food/candles and overall cleaning issues. Also the woodshed had repeated break-ins, possibly from non-renters to start campfires.”

In the discussion thread over in the Portland Hikers Facebook group, another piece of information came to light this morning. A user posted: “After talking to a ranger at the Barlow Ranger Station, I now have a better understanding of the situation. It’s more about the lack of funds to service the lookout as a winter rental. Sure, there are some dumb things people have done up there…like chop wood inside on the tile hearth, which is now chipped up, also someone had dropped a hot coal on the outside catwalk, which had burned a hole. The door was left open allowing rain to blow in, which has buckled the linoleum floor. These are the examples I got from the ranger I spoke with.”

Over on Oregon Hikers someone who used to work at Flag Point had this to say: “There are actually huge differences in upkeep for staffers vs rental guests. During fire season, supervisors, radio equipment folks and fire fighters are fairly regularly stopping by the tower, because they can drive up to it. If it becomes clear that a staffer is harming the tower or not maintaining sanitation levels, it is obvious pretty quickly. Also as a staffer, you have to live with it and you learn fast what works and what doesn’t. Rental guests range from those who treat the tower with love and know how to be in a wilderness setting, as regards to food etc. to those who are quite the opposite. During the winter access is by foot, so damage can really set in before it is noticed. A very common problem for example was people tend to think it is fine to chop kindling on the steps, floor, hearth etc, if there is snow on the ground, despite signs. Not bad intentioned, just not understanding. Same with food. People always left extra food at the tower. The sink pipe commonly froze from large food scraps being put down it and would burst. During the winter, if you are snow shoeing in, it is difficult to carry enough water to really cleanup the fridge, counters etc if needed or someone before you made a mess, so things would get pretty trashed and moldy. Cleanup usually took a full day or more at the start of our season. I always read the tower winter journal and was amazed along with the majority of visitors, who followed groups who partied up there and would use the catwalk as their outhouse for example, or throw a large plastic sack of garbage into the outhouse.”

The upshot of all this is that vandals and irresponsible renters are responsible for the removal of this popular lookout from the rental program. Many people have fond memories of staying at Flag Point or another lookout. If incidents like this continue, more lookouts will be removed from the rental program and future generations won’t get to enjoy the wonderful experience of staying in a mountaintop cabin. See my list of guidelines for being a responsible lookout renter.

Update: On June 29 KATU interviewed me about the closure of Flag Point.

Update: The Forest Service finally issued a press release on July 11, three weeks after renters got their cancellation notices. Barlow Ranger District Ranger Kameron Sam was quoted: “This was a difficult decision but the primary driver was the safety of employees and visitors. In order to maintain the structure for use in the summer and as a functioning winter rental, too many staff trips were required to make repairs to the site during harsh winter conditions.”

The press release also noted “Damage to the structure over the last few years included broken windows, damages to the main gas line, a damaged solar panel system, a damaged cook stove, and stolen furnishings and utensils. The hearth for the stove has been replaced four times, and the door was left open in one instance, letting snow inside the building which damaged the floor.”

This post has been updated to include new information.