There they go again. Thank goodness.
I last mentioned the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness in January, when the nonprofit group of environmentalists who want to protect and preserve the remaining small patches of wilderness in this neck of the woods was objecting to government approval for a giant sulfide-mining proposal on the Iron Range. Criticized as environmental extremists by pro-mining interests, the Friends were vindicated when the Environmental Protection Agency labeled the project as unacceptable and sent it back to the drawing board.
Now, the Friends are back in the news, filing suit to block construction of a high cell phone tower on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Ely, Minn.
The lawsuit was filed as a last resort after repeated attempts to get AT&T and Lake County to revise the plan for the 450-foot tower. For this affront to the gods of technology, the Friends are being pilloried as Luddites who oppose cell phones and who wish the people who live along the margins of the wilderness to dwell in a cone of silence without access to the outside world or emergency services.
If they hate cell phones, it comes as news to Paul Danicic, the executive director of the Friends, who has lived and worked in the North Woods for years, who knows the importance of reliable communication, and whom I reached the other day by scratchy cell phone signal from the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where he was vacationing with his family. Why, I asked Danicic, are you and your fiendish wilderness friends so opposed to our neighbors in Ely being able to text-message their moms on Mother's Day?
Long story short: It ain't necessarily so.
The Friends haven't taken a position against cell phone coverage in the wilderness area. They are arguing only that the plan for a cell tower on a ridge near Fall Lake (the height above the landscape would be about 600 feet) would create a visual intrusion on the wilderness and that they hope to convince Lake County and AT&T to consider alternatives that would serve local customers without changing the wilderness.
This is a reasonable position -- one that can be supported by any lover of the woods and waters but that does not brush aside the legitimate interests of local residents. But in a shrill era of "drill, baby drill" (before the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, at any rate), when preservation of the environment is in danger of being swept aside, even reasonable positions can seem like radical ones. But, in the end, environmental groups like the Friends (www.friends-bwca.org) are conservative: Conservation is what they ask.
"The scenic beauty of the Boundary Waters, a 1.1-million-acre, federally protected wilderness area, must be preserved now so the wilderness continues to be a natural, pristine and unspoiled environment for generations to come," Danicic said in a news release after the lawsuit was filed June 22 in Hennepin Country District Court. If that sounds polemical, it's not. It is the law of the land.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 said this: "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
Can wilderness be preserved when a blinking tower visible for miles "dominates the landscape?" Some parts of lake country in Minnesota, including cabin-rich Crow Wing County, have limited cell towers to 200 feet in height. Should a pristine wilderness not get the same protection? The same kind of issues threaten other national treasures such as Yellowstone National Park, and Danicic says it's time to have that discussion.
Wilderness and environmental values are under assault, and many people may dismiss a lawsuit against a cell tower as somehow unworthy of contention. I wish AT&T could fix the dead zone in my neighborhood where my cell phone calls go to die. So I accept the need for reasonable and reliable coverage for those who live and work near the wilderness. So does the Friends of the Boundary Waters, which repeatedly has stated that it would like to work out a settlement that allows for local cell phone service that does not "impair the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters."
That is not frivolous. It is fundamental to the preservation of wilderness and its value in our lives.
Sigurd F. Olson, the late naturalist who sang the song of wilderness in the Boundary Waters back before it won protection, put it this way:
"This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent. We can afford to cherish and protect it."
Another way of saying it: We can't afford not to.
Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. He can be reached at email@example.com.