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.


Map showing the visual impact of a 50-foot tower versus an 180-foot tower

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.

For those interested in reading our comments on the ARMER tower proposals, click here for the Lima Mountain comments. You can also read our comments on the Seagull Lake tower project and our full Seagull Lake Report.

Several years ago, Friends went to court to challenge a 400-foot-plus cell tower 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.


“We are property owners on Sea Gull Lake, with land directly touching the property on which the new ARMER tower will be built. We support the tower and submitted comments stating so. Specifically, we support the tower at the reduced height, for minimal visual impact on the wilderness.

“[The Friends’] work in getting people to reframe how to think about these towers was excellent — much better/more constructive than ‘just say no.’ Sometimes ‘no’ is the only acceptable answer, but at other times there are workarounds that accommodate the local community while preserving wilderness values.

“Thank you for having the maturity to think through those issues and pursue a constructive solution to the recurring question of towers near the wilderness.”


—John and Terri Penshorn
Sea Gull Lake and Wayzata, Minnesota
(via email May 23, 2018)