(CN) – AT&T wants to build a 450-foot cell phone tower next to 1.1 million acres of protected wilderness in Minnesota, a plan that environmentalists say will spoil the land’s beauty and threaten endangered species, including the bald eagle and the white throated sparrow.
The State of Minnesota, by Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, claims Lake County officials violated the state’s Environmental Rights Act when they approved construction of the tower in February.
The nonprofit group says the county should have required AT&T Mobility to complete an environmental assessment worksheet or an environmental impact statement before considering its proposal.
But according to the complaint in Hennepin County Court, the county stated that no assessment of the environmental impact was required because “no part of the tower will physically encroach upon the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area.”
The Friends of the Boundary Waters add that AT&T Mobility has not responded to its repeated requests to discuss the issue.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota includes more than 1,175 lakes in pristine forest, and hundreds of miles of streams and rivers. It was designated for federal protection in the 1964, and for state protection shortly thereafter.
Under federal guidelines, a wilderness is an area “untrammeled by man … where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” to be protected to preserve its natural conditions, where “the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”
The Friends of the Boundary Waters, citing state case law, say the protections “extend not only to the land itself, but to the scenic and aesthetic qualities of the landscape and vistas viewed from within its boundaries.”
AT&T Mobility’s proposed cell phone tower would be the tallest tower ever permitted in Lake County, and would sit atop a ridge that would raise it an additional 600 feet above the surrounding landscape.
The tower would be less than 2 miles from the protected wilderness and illuminated day and night with strobe and beacon lights, visible to canoeists, campers and other forest visitors.
In the business plan attached to its conditional-use application, AT&T Mobility said it wanted to place the cell tower as close as possible to the wilderness to cover as many of its lakeside recreation sites as it could, the complaint states.
At no time did AT&T or the county give any consideration to the visual impact of the plan, the plaintiffs say.
Birds that frequent the wilderness include bald eagles, peregrine falcons, white throated sparrows, vireos and warblers.
The plaintiffs say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website acknowledged that telecommunication towers kill 4 million to 5 million birds annually.
“Lighted guy-wired towers taller than 1999 feet about ground level are particularly hazardous to migratory birds, especially night migrating song birds,” the agency said.
While lighting of towers taller than 199 feet is mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, the FWS believes certain types of lighting may actually attract birds to the towers. The situation is particularly hazardous for the birds “during periods of poor visibility caused by low cloud ceilings, rain, snow or fog.”
The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness seek declaratory and injunctive relief under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.
Their lead counsel is Stephen Safranski with Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in Minneapolis.