Fight over BWCA cell tower in appeals court

Alton Lake, BWCA
Undated photo of Alton Lake near the Sawbill entry point in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

A court battle continues over a proposed 450-foot cell phone tower near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

AT&T wants to build the tower on private land between Ely and the western border of the BWCA. Several environmental groups sued to stop the project, saying it would intrude on the dark skies and scenic vistas of the area.

Last summer a judge ruled in their favor. AT&T appealed, and today an appeals court panel heard arguments in the case, weighing the basic question: does Minnesota law protect scenic vistas on public land even if the intruding structure is on nearby private land?

Paul Danicic, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness says it does.

Danicic's group and others sued AT&T under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act. It says citizens have a right and a responsibility to help protect the natural resources of the state -- including scenic and esthetic resources when they're on land owned by the government.

"They proposed to build a 450-foot tower on property just outside the Boundary Waters but visible up to ten miles from points within the wilderness," Danicic said. "They are claiming Minnesota Environmental Rights Act doesn't protect scenic resources in state and federal parks. MERA clearly does protect those resources, including the Boundary Waters. But including other areas too."

AT&T said the tower would be on private land, and is not covered by the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

Isabella Portage
Isabella Portage is a popular BWCAW launching site. The trail from the Isabella Portage parking lot in the bottom of the photograph points the way to Isabella Lake. The Pow Wow Trail launches off the left side of the parking lot. About a mile later, it crosses a bridge over the Isabella River, shown where the shore pinches down in the upper left hand portion of the photograph.
Photo for MPR by Steve Foss

It's partly a matter of public safety, said AT&T spokesman Alex Carey. He said with more people visiting the Boundary Waters, the need for 911 coverage increases. And during fires and other disasters, local emergency officials have asked the company to set up temporary phone network coverage to help them respond.

"There hasn't necessarily been an explicit plea for a cell tower in this area per se, but there have been coverage issues for emergency responders," Carey said.

Last summer, the trial court judge ruled that a shorter tower would serve the need nearly as well, covering all but a small part of the terrain that a much taller tower would cover. The 450-foot tower would have to be lit with white strobe lights during the day and red flashing lights at night, while the shorter tower would not. AT&T has built the shorter tower, and plans to start using it this summer. However, that still leaves 72 square-miles of land not covered by the phone network, the company said.

The three judges on the appeals panel had sharp questions for both sides, on legal and technical issues, such as how well the shorter tower would work, and whether the case as precedent could be used to ban towers anywhere around the wilderness.

Fly fishing
A man fly fishes on Lake Insula on Friday, Sept. 9, 2011, with the Pagami Creek smoke plume visible in the distance.
Photo courtesy Greg Seitz

They are expected to rule within 90 days.

Friends of the Boundary Waters doesn't take a position on the safety issue, but the group believes this case could set a precedent.

Danicic said groups around the country have contacted him with worries about other wilderness areas, and he said many places around Minnesota could be threatened.

"This would have far-reaching consequences on Minnesota's cherished natural places with scenic vistas: the North Shore for example, Voyaguers National Parks, St. Croix Scenic National Riverway — name 'em," Danicic said.

AT&T said it currently has no specific plans for other towers, but spokesman Carey said the company is always looking to improve network connectivity for its customers.

"And during peak travel times of the year, if we find out that coverage in that area is congested, then certainly we might expand," Carey said. "But it all depends on where our customers are going to be, where they need to communicate."