On towers, visibility and humility

by Paul Danicic, Executive Director

Last week I had the good fortune to present on the value of wilderness to the Ely Tuesday Group. The brainchild of Ely business owner Steve Piragis, this is an active group of about 60 Ely area residents who meet for lunch on Tuesdays and hear from different speakers on many diverse topics, often centering around furthering their community. It was also very good fortune to be presenting alongside Dr. Stephen Wilbers, senior fellow with the Technological Leadership Institute at the U of M and long-time Boundary Waters Wilderness paddler and author. Having not spent enough time on trail this summer, we couldn’t resist taking a quick overnight wilderness paddle after the presentation.

At the luncheon, we talked about the value of wilderness. We spoke of wilderness as an economic engine, as a place to spend time with family and friends free of distractions, as a place where positive rights of passages happen for young people, as a place that provides ecosystem benefits like purifying water and air, where we can learn from cultural artifacts still being discovered, and where our spirit can be renewed. We talked about wilderness being special for what was not there, essentially signs of modern human activity. In other words, it is special specifically because we decided to leave it alone. This ultimate act of societal humility is precisely what gives it value to our generation and the next.

On our paddle, we decided to check out the visual impact on the wilderness horizon of the 450 foot Fernberg cell tower AT&T built earlier this year. The Friends, with pro bono assistance from Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, had argued for a 199 foot unlighted tower that would have provided comparable service without being visible within the wilderness. My co-presenter Steve had written eloquently on the impact this tower would have on the wild wilderness horizons especially as a reasonable alternative was proposed. It turned out to be a very pleasant, if brief, trip with a purpose.

Our goal was to travel to several of the sites used in a visibility study used in the court case and see what we could see.  These areas included Fall, Mud, Ella Hall and Basswood Lakes. Steve and I paddled across Fall Lake into the BWCAW immediately in sight of the new tower. It dominated the southern skyline hundreds of feet taller than the surrounding birch and spruce forest. We pulled over at the northernmost campsite on Mile Island, one of the first sites within the BWCAW.  Nearby, up a well-used overlook, the tower showed clearly above the trees.

We hiked about a quarter of the historic Four Mile Portage out of Fall Lake. On Ella Hall, a beautiful lake off the main canoe trails, we camped and paddled the lake on a beautiful starry night under the milky way. On the northwest part of the lake where the report showed the tower would be visible, a bright, laser-like red light exploded into the night sky, blinking regularly. Steve and I were both shocked by its intensity and it jolted us out of the wilderness and into the world from which this lake was set aside.

The next day, paddling up Pipestone Bay of Basswood Lake we viewed the changing fall colors and breathed the warm pine scented autumn air. Because our work and family commitments required us to leave at a certain time, we were unable to reach a specific site on Pipestone Bay that was a part of the study. “Next time.” I said as we turned the bow of our canoe south, “Or perhaps someone else can check it out, but that would require them looking for it while on a trip taken specifically to go away from all it represents.” We had a generous amount of time to discuss the strangeness of the purpose of our trip. As Steve said afterward, “Paul and I found ourselves paddling with mixed feelings, both hoping not to see the tower and searching for it to verify the claims of those who oppose it.”  From USFS staff and others, I have heard this tower is being reported as “visible” from within the BWCAW in other places.

The value of the Boundary Waters Wilderness is real enough for thousands of people to support the work the Friends does to protect it. It is real enough to warrant sacrifice from industry and from ourselves. Is this value reduced by seeing visible signs of human development from within it’s boundaries? I believe it is. The Boundary Waters Wilderness’ value comes specifically from it being a land set apart from our improvements. We should honor our culture’s sacrifice and and our collective humility by keeping it that way.

Sigurd Olson once famously said, “This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent, we can afford to cherish and protect it.” Steve and I both came away from this trip knowing we couldn’t agree more.

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