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DULUTH – Cellphone service could soon reach some of Minnesota's most remote northern wilderness, including the Gunflint Trail and parts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Cook County Board on Tuesday approved a lease agreement allowing AT&T to build a tower on public land, a decision that sparked controversy among locals and visitors who prefer the region remain off the grid.

Rena Rogers, Cook County's management information systems director, said the cellphone provider asked to construct a tower near Gunflint Lake so that first responders can access the company's FirstNet service. Members of the public will also receive regular service.

"We're trying really hard to find a balance between service and minimizing impact," Rogers said.

The new structure will be less than 200 feet tall and built near an existing radio tower "to protect the view shed," she said. It will not be lit at night to protect the area's night skies — an asset increasingly used to promote regional tourism.

The tower will also have room to hold three service providers, should competitors like Verizon or T-Mobile want to venture Up North. Currently, service stops about halfway up the Gunflint Trail.

Congress in 2012 passed a bill creating FirstNet, an authority tasked with planning and building a new broadband network for public safety communications. "It wasn't a surprise to us that they wanted to come here," said Rogers, who added that AT&T also has a fairly new contract to use a tower in Hovland, a North Shore community between Grand Marais and Grand Portage.

At Tuesday's meeting, Cook County Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk described an instance where a person nearly died after suffering an allergic reaction to a bee sting while miles out of cellphone range. The new tower will make it safer for people exploring the outdoors, particularly those "unprepared and completely oblivious to what it means to be in the woods," she said.

"We want everyone who comes to Cook County to leave Cook County alive," Doo-Kirk said. Rogers said she's heard concerns that cellphone service could lead to distracted driving, which endangers wildlife. Others say it could save lives if a car spirals off the winding road on an icy winter day.

For years, the region has been a destination for campers and hikers, many of whom make trips to Cook County as a wilderness retreat from their day-to-day lives. "I think the wilderness is a really special place," Rogers said. "There's no place there for people who are dependent on their cellphones."

John Fredrikson, who owns Gunflint Lodge & Outfitters, said he expects some guests may miss the chance to completely unplug on vacation. But he doesn't think the tower will change much, likening it to public outcries when the Gunflint Trail was paved in the 1970s.

Plus, service — which could be ready by late next year — will likely not reach large swaths of the area.

"The strength and the power and the beauty that is the wilderness — that's not going away," Fredrikson said.

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478