Gunflint Conflict

In northern Minnesota, the Gunflint Trail winds 57 miles through a dense Boreal Forest from Lake Superior to Saganaga Lake. It splits the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in two and is a primary way canoeists enter into the BWCAW.

Only a couple hundred people live on the Gunflint Trail, and its remote location lacks infrastructure like broadband Internet, cell coverage and, in certain locations, even emergency radio service.

Referring to the BWCAW as wilderness isn’t some ethereal concept of an ideal recreational location, it’s an official designation an act of the U.S. Congress. The Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, “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 its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The Gunflint Trail community is facing a balancing act between maintaining the wilderness values exemplified in the Wilderness Act and development that allows access and public safety.

To address safety, the State of Minnesota’s Department of Transportation (MNDOT) and Cook County is installing communication towers, called the Allied Radio Matrix Emergency Response system (ARMER). The ARMER system puts all the public safety entities onto one system so they can communicate with each other during an emergency. The state mandates 95 percent coverage in the county, excluding the BWCAW.  The most contentious potential communications tower of the project is the End of the Gunflint tower, located near Sea Gull Lake, a popular BWCAW entry point. It’s an area where coverage has been spotty or nonexistent.

 Shane Chatleain, the ARMER Facilities and Contract Manager, said that MNDOT has worked “with the county to balance the functionality and environmental sensitivity of a new tower in that location.” While they are addressing all possible options, he said, that MNDOT and Cook have to be financially realistic.

“The first option and the easiest was a 180-foot tower near Sea Gull Lake which will provide sensational coverage,” Chatleain said.

In March, Tonia Kittelson, Northern Communities Program Director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a non-profit advocacy group, testified before the Cook County Commissioners about a line of sight study the Friends commissioned on the proposed tower. The End of the Gunflint Trail tower, if built, would be visible from six miles within the BWCAW for several decades.

Kittelson is no stranger to wilderness areas and outdoor recreation. Before she started with the Friends she worked over 18 years in outdoor education, including time spent leading trips in the BWCAW with Outward Bound.

“I’ve seen people slump when they see the unexpected intrusion, where the civilized world degrades the natural world,” Kittelson said. “Even a single tower will negatively and significantly impact the visible wild horizons. In the wilderness, people accept the risks and challenges that help build inner strength.”

That’s where public safety and wilderness values intersect. When even one tower, as Kittelson said, can dominate the landscape, it can end up degrading the values put forth in the Wilderness Act. On the other hand, people living on the edges of the wilderness deserve good safety coverage.

Chatleain said that engineering work on the tower is underway, but there isn’t a specific timeline. After the work is completed he will present it to the Cook County Commissioners for approval.

While not the opinion of all the commissioners, Cook County Commissioner Gary Gamble said, “When we allow public safety to become our priority we will inevitably lose the powerful influence that pristine wilderness areas can wield over humanity. I happen to believe people should be able to choose for themselves the level of risk they are willing to accept. It is this sense of adventure into the unadulterated wilds that, for many, enriches the human experience. And, for Cook County, it is what separates and defines us.”

Bryan Hansel is a writer and photographer based in Grand Marais.


This article was first published in the May issue of PADDLING Magazine. Get it here. 


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