American Birding Podcast



What’s Involved in Getting Involved: Part II (my successful fight against a cell phone tower)

On or about October 4, 1987, I learned that my area’s “Baby Bell” telecommunications company, U.S. West, was proposing to build a 300-foot guyed, lighted cell phone tower on Moose Mountain, a hill over which a great many raptors and songbirds fly just before reaching Hawk Ridge,  in Duluth, Minnesota. Moose Mountain serves as a landmark for us at Hawk Ridge when pointing out where various birds are coming from.

I waged a battle against the tower. Ultimately, they erected a 100-foot pole, low enough to not require FAA lighting and cemented in the ground without bird-killing guy wires. And one of Minnesota’s senators pressed the FCC to ensure that the tower cannot be modified in the future  without notifying Duluth Audubon Society.

In order to fight this battle I needed to do a wide variety of specific things:

  1. Gather as much information as I could find about tower kills. This was a very tricky task in 1987, but I tried to get as much current information as possible to answer these questions: How many birds are killed in tower collisions? What factors make a given tower more or less likely than other towers to kill birds?
  2. Bring together as much information as possible about the magnitude of migration near the tower site. This was fairly easy because at Hawk Ridge, daily autumn raptor counts had been kept since the 1970s, and for the past few years we’d been keeping careful daily  autumn songbird counts at a site very close to where the tower was to be constructed. I also brought together as many clippings as I could  find mentioning the importance of our area as an important migratory corridor, from such widely respected sources as National  Geographic and National Audubon.
  3. I asked people with specific expertise regarding the most important issues to write letters of support, specifying why the proposed tower posed a real danger to migrating birds because of the specific properties of the proposed tower and its location:
    • Harrison Tordoff of the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History, past president of the American Ornithologists’ Union and one of the people involved in a long-term study of collision mortality at a tower in Kansas;
    • Dr. Patrick Redig, co-founder and veterinarian at The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, who had treated raptors with
      guy-wire and tower-related injuries;
    • Jack Mooty, our region’s Nongame Wildlife Specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources;
    • Bob Janssen, co-author of Minnesota’s Birds: Where, When, and How Many;
    • Kim Eckert, author of A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota and the birder most active throughout the state, so the best authority on the unique nature of the area’s migration;
    • David Evans, the raptor bander at Hawk Ridge;
    • Molly Evans, the raptor counter at Hawk Ridge.
  4. Learn about the two federal agencies involved in regulating communications towers: the FCC and the FAA (involved because the lighting required on tall towers is to protect aircraft and passengers) and find out about their permitting process.
  5. Learn about my state’s Environmental Policy Act and the processes involved in objecting to a project. In this case, the first step involved requesting an Environmental Assessment Worksheet.
  6. Learn the procedure for filing a complaint in District Court and requesting an injunction to prevent construction until the issue was resolved.
  7. Because US West represented to the public that this particular project was essential for providing 911 service to the township, I tracked down the county’s 911 administration to find out the truth. It would have been harder, and perhaps unjustifiable, to fight a project that really could help save human lives. As it turned out, US West was misrepresenting that (the antenna for 911 service for the area was  already in place on a tower in Duluth), and my careful homework helped expose the lie. Use letters to the editor, radio commentary, and
    other media to provide accurate information to the public. I was very careful to never misrepresent the facts, and worked hard to control my emotions (my Irish gets up a bit too easily) so I could effectively but fairly sway public opinion.

I was extremely lucky because of several things:

  1. A wonderful attorney volunteered to help me pro bono after I did a radio program about the issue. I’m not sure I would have been able to negotiate some of the legal processes without his help.
  2. Janet Green, one of the top birders in Minnesota who was co-author of Minnesota’s Birds: Where, When, and How Many, has an amazingly comprehensive grasp of the ins and outs of Minnesota’s environmental laws and procedures, and knew how the township proceeded with permits for projects like this. She helped me step by step as I negotiated the Zoning Board, Board of Adjustment, and Town Board.
  3. Every expert I approached for a letter of support put together a great one, keeping focused on the specific problems the project posed to migrating birds and the specific qualifications s/he had to evaluate the project’s potential harm.
  4. While researching tower kills, the most useful resource I found was R.D. Weir’s Annotated Bibliography of Bird Kills at Man-Made Obstacles: A Review of the State of the Art and Solutions, published in 1977 by the Canadian Wildlife Services. I could not find a copy anywhere, including via inter-library loan. But I wrote to the CWS asking if I could purchase a copy and they photocopied and sent me the entire report at their expense.
  5. Being a stay-at-home mother (my children were 1, 3, and 5 when I first started working on this), my schedule was very flexible, and the great children’s section of the Duluth Public Library was a great place to keep an eye on my kids while doing research. Fighting this one  project involved at least 600 hours between learning of the proposal in October 1987 and August 1988, when the FAA agreed to keep Duluth Audubon apprised of any proposal to change the tower design.
  6. I have an unusually supportive husband. My lawyer worked pro bono, but I still had personal expenses of well over $500 (for postage, photocopying, long distance phone calls and other costs) at a time when my personal income was zero and we were still paying 15% interest on our house loan (yes, back in the 80s a mortgage was almost as expensive as buying a house on a credit card). That $500 represented pretty much our family’s entire discretionary income for the year.

Part III will be about my part in a fight against a taller tower to be constructed at the edge of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 2011.

I wrote up a 5-page account of the battle, in chronological order, that you can download from my webpage  at