More Tower Problems for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

The sky was so crystal clear last night. I stepped out of my house to go get something out of my car and noticed that the treeline in my yard would make a great night photo. I shut off all the lights in the house and made this shot.

I live in northern Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Boundary Waters (BWCA or BWCAW) is a designated wilderness area with no development except for portage trails tying together 1,200 miles of canoe routes and some 2000 designated campsites. At over 1 million acres and 150 miles along the Minnesotan and Canadian border, it is the largest wilderness area specific to canoeing, and it’s America’s most visited wilderness area.

Paddlers come to the BWCA because the land feels untouched and pure and calming and peaceful and you can feel adventurous. It’s one of those places in the world where when you leave the put-in, you put your work-a-day life behind you and revive your soul. As you travel through the BWCA, you won’t see man-made objects from the over 2,000 lakes. You’ll see moose, bear, beavers, otters, bald eagles and lakes so clear and clean and crisp that many people dip a cup directly into the water and refresh their thirst for exploration and relaxation. You won’t see massive towers on the horizon.

Or will you?

If the Cook County commissioners and MNDOT add a ARMER tower on Seagull Lake at the End of the Gunflint Trail, you’ll no longer have unobscured horizons from within the BWCA from the Gunflint Trail area (we already lost a battle to a cell tower in the Ely area). They could go two ways with this tower. They could build it over 200 feet or under 200 feet. If it’s over, it will be lighted. If not, it will still be visible from within the BWCA.

Many people who live with towers such as these may wonder why this is important.  It’s important because the value in Wilderness Areas and wilderness experiences is in how much they differ from your work-a-day life. As more items from your work-a-day life enter your wilderness experience, the less of a wilderness experience it becomes.

value in a wilderness experience

Take a look again at the shot at the top of the post. Notice the green glow in this shot. That’s airglow. Airglow is an atmospheric phenomenon that keeps the sky from going completely dark. It’s light emitted from out planet’s atmosphere. Airglow is only visible from the darkest locations, and people in over half of the United States have no chance of seeing airglow because the city lights are too bright. Cook County, as long as the county recognizes the resource that we have and preserves it, is and may remain one of the darkest places west of a line that runs from Fargo to San Antonio (North Dakota has lost much of its dark sky due the the new oil fields). The location being investigated for this tower is located in the darkest part of Cook County. It’s so dark there that it equals the darkness of the darkest parts of the world. That’s a rare location in the lower 48 and unheard of in the Great Lake’s region. A lighted tower would ruin that darkness.

A tower under 200 foot tall would still be seen from within the BWCA from the Kekakabic and Magnetic Trails, most of Seagull Lake, Mediation Lake, Larch Lake and creek, the portage up to Jap (Paulson) Lake and others. Visibility studies on the tower are being ordered by outside groups, so we’ll know the real extent of the issue and not just what MNDOT tells us.

There are potential alternatives to a tower that should be investigated:

  • Connecting the existing facility on the Gunflint Tower through the new fiber optic to a much smaller tower at end of trail.
  • The feasibility of using an outdoor bi-directional amplifier like what was used in Murray County, MN and approved by MNDOT’s ARMER program.
  • Smaller local repeaters that cover weak or dead zones.

According to Sarah Hamilton, owner of Trail Center, the ARMER coverage at the End of the Gunflint is already good. There are a few weak spots and even fewer dead spots, so local boosting instead of a tower would better protect our wilderness and dark sky resources. Her letter is included below.

If you have time, please, contact County Commissioners,,,,, and Sheriff

Tell them:

  • To protect our night sky resources in Cook County.
  • To protect our wilderness area’s views and keep the wilderness experience of high value.
  • No to the ARMER Tower on Seagull at the End of the Gunflint Trail.
  • Tell them to investigate connecting the existing facility on the Gunflint Tower through the new fiber optic to a much smaller tower at end of trail. The other option would be to look into the feasibility of using an outdoor bi-directional amplifier like what was used in Murray County, MN and approved by MNDOT’s ARMER program.
  • Tell them you support safety, and you also support the wilderness values and dark sky resources that Cook County offers. Tell them to find a way to accomplish both.

This is from Sarah Hamilton, owner of Trail Center:

New Communications tower proposed for end of the Gunflint Trail area

Proposed location for the ARMER tower.
Proposed location for the ARMER tower.

Cook county and the state of Minnesota are now proposing to build a tower near Seagull Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail as part of its ongoing project of implementing a new communications radio system known statewide as ARMER. Originally six new towers were planned for the system within Cook County, of which two have been built. This new tower was requested of the state by the county when it was found there are some weak spots in coverage at the end of the trail, much like with the previous VHF radio system.

As can be seen in illustration. The tower would be about one and a half miles from Seagull Lake. This proposed site location is official from MNDOT. They are in process of engineering this site “due to a request from Cook County.” It was not in the original ARMER radio tower plan and would therefore be considered a local enhancement giving the county control if it is to be built but also possibly incurring great local expense to county as well.

This tower would be seen from everywhere up here in this fire scarred narrow corridor through the BWCA wilderness. To give you an idea, placing any tower, even if less than 200 feet within this burned and rocky landscape would be the most prominent visible feature on the landscape from places like the Palisades, the Kekakabic and Magnetic Trails, most of Seagull Lake, Mediation Lake, Larch Lake and creek, the high trails up at Chick-Wauk Nature Center, the portage up to Jap (Paulson) Lake, most of the Gunflint Trail from before the forest service guard station to just before the Seagull Lake public landing. That is only a few places of note where visible; actually it would be the dominant feature on the landscape through this whole burned area and would be placed in the heart of an area where many locals and tourists recreate and pick blueberries.

In talking with a number of people who have served on the local volunteer fire department, the sheriffs department, as well as a local resident who does radio and tower work for the county and is an advocate of ARMER, I have been told that the new radios do work up here now, though there are weak spots and one can find occasional dead spots in coverage. Some have said that local coverage is about the same or slightly better than the old VHS system as it is now configured without an added tower.

We are not against enhanced radio use for safety reasons, but merely trying to come up with an alternative that would not involve a tower in this most visually sensitive area. We already have a new tower on Pine Mountain, with others to be built on Lima Mountain, near Devilfish Lake and in the Sawbill Lake area, as well as one in the Cascade River Valley, which is currently planned to be a 330 foot tower with strobe and red lights. One alternative to a tower up at the end of the trail would be to connect the existing facility on the Gunflint Tower through the new fiber optic to a much smaller tower at end of trail. The other would be to look into the feasibility of using an outdoor bidirectional amplifier like what was used in Murray County, MN and approved by MNDOT’s ARMER program. We ask that you contact the Cook County commissioners if concerned by this.

More about the Murray County Bi-Directional Amplifier from the Minnesota – ARMER and 9-1-1 Funding Study:

As contemplated earlier in the planning process, the only significant issue of concern to Murray County after the ARMER system implementation was the lack of radio coverage in the city of Fulda area. The on-street portable radio coverage was usable but weak, and in-building coverage was non-existent.

To resolve this problem, the county reviewed the option of funding a new ARMER tower site in the Fulda area. The county considered this to be an expensive option, with a typical cost of $300,000 to $500,000, depending on tower site availability, equipment costs, installation services and other related items.

Instead of spending such a significant amount of money to resolve this problem for a small geographic area, the county implemented a somewhat creative solution – known as an Outdoor BDA (Bi-Directional Amplifier) – that was presented by a vendor, FiPlex.

The Outdoor BDA serves a similar purpose as a tower site – to provide reliable radio coverage to portable (and mobile) units, but does so by capturing the 800 MHz radio signals from a remote ARMER tower site, and rebroadcasting them into the target area (the city of Fulda). The BDA also receives the incoming signals from portable radios and links them back into the remote ARMER site.

Making this system work properly is somewhat technologically challenging, but if done properly it is a cost-effective solution to resolving 800 MHz radio coverage issues.

Finally a great infographic from Therese Davis.



Subscribe! Get PaddlingLight in your inbox. Enter your email address:

One comment

  • This is a never ending story!why does encroachment in the name of communications trump our need for pristine views in the outddoes.Environmental liberation is the calling of a few but the need of many,do what you can when you can but do something! Thanks for your post #elf

Comments are closed.