By far the most frustrating aspect of reporting news in our 220-square-mile area of coverage is getting cell phone service in Poudre Canyon. Trying to communicate with the outside world anywhere along the Cache la Poudre River is difficult; if you know the sweet spots and the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can scamper up a hillside and maybe find one bar’s worth of signal strength. The only reliable cell phone service is at Ted’s Place, several miles outside the canyon’s dead zones.

Before our sob story causes you to tune up your weeping violin, put yourself in the shoes of Larimer County Sheriff’s deputies patrolling the canyon or someone needing their help in a life-threatening emergency. Then, as was the case with the Hewlett and High Park wildfires, multiply the urgency to communicate via cell or radio by tenfold.

Larimer County has sought to remedy the canyon’s radio communication shortfalls for over a decade. Its most recent iteration, backed by Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, involves building a communication tower on Middle Bald Mountain, about 7 miles southwest of Red Feather Lakes in the Roosevelt National Forest.

The tower would improve radio communications for law enforcement, fire departments and other emergency responders. Most significantly, the tower helps extend emergency radio service into most of Poudre Canyon.

The current proposal calls for a:
• 70-foot tall, three-legged steel tower,
• 200-square-foot building for equipment,
• 2,900-foot long access road that will be partially rehabilitated after construction,
• 12-mile power line originating in Red Feather Lakes and a backup generator.

The proposed tower doesn’t provide radio coverage for 100 percent of Poudre Canyon, but it is a substantial improvement over what we now have.

The Forest Service is currently preparing an Environmental Impact Statement using input obtained from public open houses and written comments submitted by citizens. The study should be completed by early next year.

Some property owners in the area have been fighting the proposed tower for almost as long as it has been proposed, and the opposition has had positive effects on the project. For example, the county looked into alternative placement of the tower on Middle Bald and in the latest plan under review has moved the site about 250 feet off the summit. The new site would provide the same coverage with a less intrusive profile, according to the county’s communications technicians.

While opponents of the tower maintain that Sheriff Smith prefers multiple towers closer to the canyon, the sheriff himself has made clear to us that his first choice for the communication tower is and always has been Middle Bald. (From our reporting in last month’s North Forty News, we can understand how members of the Mummy Range Institute arrived at the conclusion that an alternative plan was his choice, because Sheriff Smith has previously stated in public hearings that “if money were no object” then multiple towers in Poudre Canyon would be preferred. But money does matter, and the nearly $5 million cost added to the potential for environmental impacts and landowner negotiations would not only drive up the cost but also drag out the project for another decade.)
From an everyday user’s perspective, what Poudre Canyon needs most is cell service. In the second decade of the 21st century, it makes no sense having to drive several miles, either to the top of a hill or to the 911 call boxes, to get help in the event of a wildfire, car accident or incident on the river.

We own property in Red Feather and favor the tower. And although the county has limited the project scope to a government-only public safety radio tower, we wouldn’t mind at all if transmitters for commercial cell service were also allowed on the Middle Bald tower. Over and out.

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