The phone frontier

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 5, 2010 - 9:20 AM

Some say the "wild" in wilderness will be lost if broad cellular service reaches the BWCA, but others like the safety benefits.


A wilderness group has sued to stop construction of an AT&T tower. This photo was taken at Discovery Lake, on the border of the Boundary Waters.

Photo: Jim Brandenburg, Brandenburg Gallery,

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Blackberries won't be just on the bushes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness if a giant cell phone tower gets built nearby. AT&T's proposal to build a 450-foot tower makes Minnesota's premier wilderness the latest to feel the pressure to extend the reach of cell phones to the great outdoors.

Disputes have erupted from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to Acadia National Park in Maine about towers and their visual impact. But even outdoor lovers can feel torn between the desire to get away from it all and the need to call for help.

"If one life could be saved by [better] cell phone coverage it would be worth it," said Carrie Cartier of Shoreview. "But I do not want to hear nine cell phones ringing across the bay from my campsite because a group of teens has to be able to keep in touch with all of their friends."

AT&T proposes to build the tower on a ridge east of Ely, about 1.5 miles from the wilderness boundary.

No way, said Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, an advocacy group that filed a lawsuit June 22 to stop construction.

"Our concern is the scenic value of the wilderness," said Paul Danicic, the group's executive director. The BWCA is an international gem, he said, and its character would be marred by a looming tower with lights flashing day and night that would be seen from at least eight lakes within the wilderness.

A shorter tower could improve local cell phone coverage without the visual encroachment, Danicic said.

In court documents, AT&T contends that a shorter tower would not do the job because the topography is hilly. The project aims to provide maximum coverage for residents, the company said, and for the more than 250,000 visitors to the wilderness each year. "Enjoying the BWCA's scenic resources is important -- but enjoying those resources safely is even more important," it said.

Mary Tome, one of three supervisors in Fall Township where the tower would be built, said service is spotty and even emergency calls to 911 are sometimes impossible. The safety benefits of improved cell phone service far outweigh seeing the tower from a handful of lakes, she said.

"As far as despoiling the wilderness, I just don't buy it," she said.


Tower construction is on hold until a judge hears the case in December, and Superior National Forest officials have taken no position on the lawsuit.

The forest's wilderness trip planning guide warns visitors not to rely on cell phones because many areas of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness lack coverage. "Having a cell phone cannot substitute for knowing how to handle an emergency in wilderness," it says.

Kris Reichenbach, public affairs officer for the forest, said that the service responds to 18 to 25 emergency incidents each year in the wilderness. Some require evacuations, she said, but others are not emergencies at all. Emergency calls go first to county responders, who screen them and take action if necessary, sometimes enlisting the forest service for help.

To place calls successfully, campers faced with emergencies have sometimes needed to canoe to a different lake, or hike up a ridge, to get reception.

Talk of the tower has enlivened editorial pages and filled website discussion boards, such as, and many BWCA visitors said they can see both sides of the debate. Comprehensive phone coverage would be better for emergencies, they said, but it could also change the nature of the wilderness experience and infringe upon its solitude and serenity.

Some said that cell phone towers are not necessary, since visitors can rent satellite phones to call in emergencies, or use SPOT trackers and other devices that transmit distress signals. "The entire point and allure of a wilderness is that it is wild and you will have to assume some sort of risk when entering," said Nathan Windschill of Duluth.

"It's a wilderness area. It's not downtown," said Tim Hoffman of East Bethel. "If I wanted to be able to call everyone I'd put my canoe in Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis instead of driving to Ely."

However, Dave Smyth of Minneapolis said that visitors already use GPS devices, depth finders and other gadgets, and to have consistent 911 service is a "no-brainer." To deny improvements, he said, "you may as well mandate that you go in naked with only birchbark canoes, and with no tents, matches or processed food. The point is to enjoy the experience in a safe manner."

Courteous reminders

Laura Loomis, deputy vice president for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, said her group knows that cell phone use is ubiquitous. Disputes about cell towers in and near parks will continue to arise, she said, both from private firms in commercial markets and government agencies seeking better homeland security communications.

Loomis said park managers need to remind visitors to use phones and other devices responsibly and courteously, since no one wants to hear someone else's phone conversations while trying to enjoy a waterfall, vista or other natural marvel.

At the north rim of the Grand Canyon, said Loomis, only one small area is good for cell phone connections. "Every day when people are done with their activities, that spot is jam-packed with people trying to get coverage," she said. "People are intent on using these devices."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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