For the Birds Radio Program: US West Tower

Original Air Date: Dec. 7, 1987

Laura finds herself in a legal battle with US West regarding a proposed cell phone tower.

Audio missing


(Recording of a telephone)

It isn’t often that a birdwatcher takes on a major corporation, but suddenly I find myself enmeshed in a battle against U.S. West—the parent company of Northwestern Bell.

It seems cellular technology—for mobile car telephones— is coming to Duluth. The problem is, U.S. West has decided that the place they want to set up a 290 foot tower supported by an extensive system of guy wires is right smack in the middle of the bird migration route, on Moose Mountain in Lakewood township. Now I personally counted 36,420 birds in only 51 hours this fall from the Lakewood Pumping Station, most of them flying well under 290 feet, and many of them were headed straight for Moose Mountain. Altogether, Duluth Audubon counters tallied fully 115,000 hawks and Dickey birds flying over the Pumphouse during only 33 days of counting this fall– and most of those days we were only counting for about four hours. That means one heck of a lot of migrants are flying through this narrow corridor between Lake Superior’s shoreline and the ridge.

Over 20,000 birds were killed in a single night at some towers in Eau Claire Wisconsin in 1957. And radio towers kill an estimated one million birds in the U.S. every year. According to some people, that’s a drop in the bucket, but a million dead birds is a million dead birds. Someone has to speak for them.

Of course, some towers are more dangerous than others, and one set smack dab in the middle of one of the heaviest migration routes in inland North America, where even endangered Peregrine Falcons fly, may easily become one of the worst. Duluth already has an antennae farm, in the middle of town beyond the main migration, and there are plenty of other places outside this narrow but vulnerable corridor where any other necessary towers could be placed.

A U.S. West spokesman earnestly assured the Lakewood Township Zoning Board that with cellular phones, people in Duluth could call Hong Kong from their cars. He left out the perhaps minor point that the cheapest cellular phones available currently cost over $1,000 to buy and install, and monthly bills average $150-200—it’s not exactly the sort of technological advance any of my friends can afford to run out and buy. Even in big cities where the cellular business is booming, less than one percent of people own them. But I’m perfectly willing to concede that cellular technology might be fun and even useful for affluent businessmen, that is unless they stray more than 10 miles from the two towers U.S. West is planning on building in the area. According to the current U.S. West plan, cellular phone owners won’t be able to call home from Two Harbors or Morgan Park from their cars, much less use the phone on the long stretch between Duluth and Minneapolis.

U.S. West has a lot of money invested in this plan, and they sure don’t intend to be stopped by a birdwatcher. They went ahead and closed on the purchase of some property even after the Lakewood Township Zoning Board unanimously turned down their request for a Conditional use permit to build the tower on that site, which is zoned for residential use only. Now this giant corporation is appealing for a variance from the Lakewood Township Board of Adjustment at a hearing this week. I sure hope the board turns them down. After all, it’s not a question of cellular phones OR birds—it’s a question of finding a suitable tower site so we can have cellular phones AND birds.

(Recording of a Veery)

This is Laura Erickson, and this editorial program has been “For the Birds.”