Would a 450-foot cell phone tower built outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness spoil the view, and if so, would the loss be worth any enhanced public safety?
That's what a Hennepin County District judge will decide at the culmination of a five-day trial set to begin this week involving two interests who say the proposed AT&T tower bears very different consequences.
The tower will spoil the purity of the wilderness and endanger birds in the 1.1 million-acre wilderness in the heart of Minnesota's Superior National Forest, argues a conservation group that focuses solely on protecting the Boundary Waters.
AT&T counters that, even if occasionally spotted from inside the Boundary Waters, the tower is vital for public safety to provide cellular phone service to residents and visitors.
Opening statements are set for Monday in the case, in which Minneapolis-based Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is suing AT&T to prevent the construction of the tower on a ridge east of Ely near the Fernberg Trail, about 1 1/2 miles from the BWCA border.
The organization says that although the tower would be outside the BWCA, it "threatens to leave an indelible and unnatural imprint on the unspoiled Boundary Waters landscape," which is protected under state and federal laws.
District Judge Philip Bush will eventually render a verdict in the case, which is scheduled to wrap up at the start of construction season.
"It may seem like a little thing, but it's important to so many," said Paul Danicic, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. "It's a big, beautiful wilderness, but this is a big tower, and our voice is for the beauty and the value of this place that is untouched by permanent human changes."
AT&T said it acquired the necessary permits from Lake County, where a number of emergency officials filed sworn statements in support of the tower, saying that lights are visible and traffic audible from many areas in the BWCA already. The tower is necessary for safety, it says, and it has the support of residents there.
"We are confident that the county's well-considered decision to approve this important public safety facility is correct," said AT&T spokesman Marty Richter. "We look forward to presenting our case at trial."
The tower would include lights that would flash day and night and wiring to support it. With the height of the ridge, the top of the tower would reach 600 feet above the shore of nearby Pipestone Bay. By comparison, downtown Minneapolis' Foshay Tower stands 448 feet tall and Minneapolis' tallest building, the IDS Tower, is 886 feet. Most cell phone towers in the state are no taller than 199 feet.
Experts are expected to take the stand to discuss the topography of the area, the reach of cell phone coverage, and even bird species in the area.
Danicic said his organization is not opposed to a tower, it just doesn't want one that is so tall. AT&T has countered that the height is necessary for adequate coverage in the hilly region.
"There are over 1,175 lakes in the BWCAW," AT&T said in a pre-trial brief. "If the light from the tower can be seen from some of them, outstanding opportunities still exist in this 1.1 million-acre wilderness."
That's not the point, said Danicic, who said his organization views the lawsuit as a test case as proposals for other towers loom around the Boundary Waters and other natural areas.
"We want to be sure that if we're going to do these things, we should be able to take into account the valuable natural areas that we have around us," he said. "That shouldn't be hard to do."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921