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AT&T cell phone tower diminishes Minnesota’s prized northern wilderness

If you paddle Ella Hall Lake this summer, you’ll see the top of AT&T’s new 450-foot cell phone tower, with its white strobe light blinking by day and its red beacon light flashing by night.

Have you ever paddled Ella Hall Lake?

wilbers portrait
Stephen Wilbers

“Ella Hall Lake is a favorite getaway lake, especially among Ely-area residents,” according to Ely outfitter Steve Piragis. This Boundary Waters gem offers “pretty little campsites, nice water, good fishing,” and it has a “pretty view” to the southwest.

Last summer there were no permanent structures visible from Ella Hall Lake to mar the wilderness horizon. But if you paddle Ella Hall Lake this summer, you’ll see the top of AT&T’s newly constructed 450-foot cell phone tower, with its white strobe light blinking by day and its red beacon light flashing by night.

Goodbye, wilderness.

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The same is true of Newton Lake, Muskeg Lake, Mud Lake, Wood Lake, Pipestone Bay of Basswood Lake, much of South Farm Lake, and portions of the Kawishiwi River near Picnic Island and Farm Lake, where no permanent structures were visible before AT&T erected its 450-foot tower. It’s also true of the southerly view from the beautiful sand beach on Mile Island, located on Fall Lake, where many (but not all) areas had previously unspoiled views.

Given the enormous threat posed by sulfide mining to the Boundary Waters watershed, one might ask, does AT&T’s 450-foot tower really matter?

Preserving our country’s most frequently visited wilderness – that is, managing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) so that it looks and feels as much as possible like wilderness – does matter. It is important to all Minnesotans who value their environmental heritage. It matters both to today’s citizens and to future generations. And it mattered to some of Minnesota’s most eloquent and beloved writers, people like Ernest Oberholtzer, Florence Page Jaques, Calvin Rutstrum, Sigurd Olson, Miron (Bud) Heinselman, and Paul Gruchow – writers whose work one tower proponent dismisses as “romantic and emotional.”

More than romance and emotion

This map from Friends of the Boundary Waters shows cell phone tower visibility from
several BWCA lakes.

I know the language of commerce differs from the language of the soul, but surely the reverence so many of us feel in the presence of natural beauty amounts to more than romance and emotion. When I sit on a granite point watching the sun set over an unadulterated landscape, I feel humbled. As Kate Crowley and Mike Link observe in “Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,” “Humility is easy when the rock you sit on predates all forms of life.”

For me and for countless others, the Boundary Waters wilderness provides a quiet refuge from the hectic pace of modern life. Its protected landscape reminds us of what this part of the North American continent looked like before being altered and transformed by development. For nearly 30 years my father and I, along with various family members and friends, walked its portage trails and canoed its waters, often marveling at the starry sky on clear, moonless nights. My father is gone now, and one of my favorite memories is hearing him comment on how you could see the Milky Way all the way down to the horizon. I can still hear his voice.

I’m not alone in valuing unspoiled wilderness and the unmarred night sky.

‘Scenic beauty,’ ‘remoteness, solitude’

According to a National Forest Service survey of overnight and day-use visitors, BWCA visitors ranked the following as the three most desired attributes of a BWCA trip: (1) “scenic beauty” (somewhat or very important to 96.7% of overnight visitors and 97.3% of day-use visitors); (2) “Remoteness, solitude” (somewhat or very important to 93% of overnight users and 89.1% of day-use visitors); and (3) “natural place, lack of human evidence” (somewhat or very important to 91.8% of overnight visitors and 85.6% of day-use visitors).

Those statistics were one of 239 Findings of Fact cited by District Judge Philip Bush in his August 2011 ruling prohibiting construction of the 450-foot tower but allowing construction of an unlit 199-foot tower, one that offered essentially the same service but that would not have been visible from within the wilderness.

AT&T built the shorter tower while it appealed. Then in June 2012, three Court of Appeals judges appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty – Louise Dovre Bjorkman, Michelle A. Larkin, and Lawrence “Larry” B. Stauber, Jr., – reversed the ruling.

So AT&T replaced its shorter tower with a 450-foot megatower, which is “taller than the twenty-four floor Hennepin County Government Center (404 feet) and as tall as the Foshay Tower in downtown Minneapolis (447 feet).” The taller tower can be seen from a distance of “at least 8 miles during the daytime and more than 10 miles during the night time.” (More Findings of Fact, all of which stand unchallenged by Judges Bjorkman, Larkin, and Stauber.)

An unnecessary assault

What is so maddening about this brazen assault on Minnesota’s prized wilderness is that it was unnecessary.

Nothing was gained by AT&T’s erecting its 450-foot tower. No residents in the Fall Lake Fernberg Corridor area will be served who would not have been served by the 199-foot tower alternative. No significant coverage in the overall Boundary Waters wilderness will be achieved by AT&T’s taller tower. And no financial hardship of “extraordinary magnitude” will be suffered by A&T, whose “return on investment” with the shorter tower “was 63 months, missing the corporate profit benchmark by only 3 months.” (All Findings of Fact.)

The debate will continue. The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness is asking visitors to document how AT&T’s tower with its flashing lights affects their wilderness experience.

Meanwhile, AT&T’s tower stands. Our prized wilderness has been compromised. And no one knows how many more intrusions will be permitted in the years ahead.

Perhaps Piragis said it best when he wrote, “The loons will still call and the fish will still bite and the stars will glow on moonless nights. But to escape the flashing strobes we’ll have to paddle or snowshoe a little farther, and the wilderness will be a little smaller.”

Stephen Wilbers’ column on effective writing appears every other Monday in the Star Tribune’s business section. He has written two books on canoeing the Boundary Waters wilderness. You can see his Boundary Waters chronology here.


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