When we enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, we enter a unique realm -- a "precious and picturesque . . . combination of water, rock and forest, all linked together in a single maze of bewildering beauty," as explorer and wilderness advocate Ernest Oberholtzer describes it. But it's more than beauty, and it's more than scenery.

"Scenery is something you have merely looked at," Paul Gruchow reminds us in "Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild." "Place is something you have experienced."

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of AT&T's proposed 450-foot cellphone tower. The flashing lights from the tower, situated atop a 150-foot ridge near the Fernberg Road, would be visible for miles inside the Boundary Waters wilderness. Its pulsing lights would do more than mar the scenery. They would fundamentally alter the wilderness experience for some of the 250,000 people who visit the Boundary Waters annually.

It's true, as tower proponents have argued, that lights and towers are already visible from certain Boundary Waters lakes. This 1.1 million acre preserve is not a perfect, pristine or unaltered wilderness. But it does provide a healthy dose of beauty, solace and relative solitude. When you travel by canoe, you leave behind the speed of modern civilization, you acquiesce to that quiet time zone that comes with paddling. And with that sensation comes a kind of liberation.

"Freedom surrounds us," writes Florence Page Jaques in "Canoe Country." "We are finding more than peace here. This is an authentic and profound release from modern intricacies."

If you've never been to the Boundary Waters, you might wonder why a lighted tower on the horizon would be a big deal. It's hard to understand wilderness if you've never experienced it, just as it's hard to appreciate the mystery and splendor of the starlit heavens if you've never seen the night sky unobscured by light pollution.

For me and countless other visitors, spending time in the wilderness is more than amusement or recreation or thrill-seeking, although it's these things, too. I love what the Boundary Waters wilderness represents -- an acknowledgment of the beauty and sanctity of our natural environment, a window to the way the world once was. Without this "maze of bewildering beauty," my life would be diminished.

I understand how things might look different to the good people of Ely. They are as entitled to cellphone service as I am. If 250,000 of them came to Minneapolis and told me that my house, located a block and a half from the Minnehaha Creek, was interfering with their aesthetic appreciation of our lovely Minnehaha Parkway and that it would have to be removed, I would be unhappy.

But the question of providing cellphone service to the area isn't an either/or situation. The alternative 199-foot tower approved by Hennepin County District Judge Philip Bush would provide nearly comparable service, and the shorter tower would not be visible from within the wilderness.

The soft values of imagination, aesthetics and spirituality may seem hopelessly romantic in the hard-edged world of practicality, personal safety, profit and development, but they need to be taken into account as we continue to seek fair and reasonable compromise in protecting this precious remnant of what our continent was like before we altered it, in many cases beyond recognition.

When I visit the Boundary Waters wilderness, I feel as though I'm entering a region that embodies an important chapter in our American history. When I paddle across a lake or carry my gear across a portage, I am embracing a part of our national heritage -- a tradition of exploration, preservation and reverence for the natural world. It's a heritage we should cherish and protect.


Stephen Wilbers' column on effective writing appears every other Monday in the Star Tribune's business section. He is the author of "A Boundary Waters History: Canoeing Across Time," and the forthcoming "Canoeing the Boundary Waters Wilderness: A Sawbill Log." For his online Boundary Waters history, visit www.wilbers.com/ChronologyWelcome.htm or google "Boundary Waters history."