One of the wilderness characteristics Boundary Waters users cherish are wild horizons that are free from signs of human civilization. While many people travel the BWCAW to get away from the demands of constant communication, we know that reliable emergency communications are needed for public safety. According to federal regulations, any radio or cell phone tower above 200 feet tall must be lit at night. Wilderness visitors and residents of the communities near the wilderness need the service that these towers provide for public safety, but there are ways to provide service without intruding on the wilderness.
The BWCAW has some of the darkest skies left in the continental United States and this is an important part of the wilderness experience. These dark skies attract people from across the continent. Blinking lights on the horizon degrade wilderness character and are unnecessary to provide service.
Much of our work to protect the wild horizons of the BWCAW happens behind the scenes. We work with local residents and officials to provide alternatives early in the planning process. As an example, the State of Minnesota is constructing a statewide radio tower system for emergency communications called the ARMER system. A number of proposed radio towers on the edge of the BWCAW would have exceeded 200 feet in height, but because of our work, they were scaled back to less than 200 feet. The coverage differences are minimal, but the impact on wilderness character is great. Our work with local residents and stakeholders in Cook County created win-win outcomes that will protect the wild horizons of the BWCAW in the Gunflint Trail corridor and on the southern edge of the BWCAW near Baker Lake.
In one case, Friends went to court to challenge a cell tower. In that case, a cell tower over 400 feet tall was proposed by AT&T near the Fernberg Road east of Ely. Despite evidence showing that a 199 foot tower in that location would provide the same level of service to local residents, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the decision we won at the district court level – allowing the AT&T tower to be built. However, since the conclusion of that case in 2013, no lit tower (cell phone or radio) has been built over 200 feet or within viewing distance of the BWCAW, in large part because of our work.