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Logan's 55 year-old mountain top reflectors finally come down

I’m hiking up Saddleback Mountain. The helicopter is coming, right now.

I’m breathing hard as I hike up the extraordinarily steep Saddleback Mountain trail. That helicopter is about to land two thousand feet above me. We are both are headed to what many in Logan call the billboards.

If you’re a "Loganite" you know what I’m talking about. If you’re not-- there’s these two billboard-like structures you can see from the city below that sit right on the top of Saddleback Mountain above Utah State University. Even if you haven’t hiked to see them up close, it’s clear they’re very large, about twice as tall as a freeway billboard.

From below their function is mysterious, after all how much advertisement could a billboard on top of a mountain get? Larry Framme, a reality specialist for the Forest Service said they are actually reflectors. Ones installed in 1967 by the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company with permission from the United States Forest Service.

“They were installed as reflector sites for transmitting microwave signals, which were used for transmitting radio signals and telephone signals. Microwaves operate in a line of sight, they can't pass through mountains. So they can essentially shoot the microwaves over the mountains, and then back into valleys,” said Framme.

Framme says the helicopter is a part of an effort to take the reflectors down since they’re no longer in use. They’ve been made obsolete by fiber-optic technology. The easement, or the permission to locate the reflectors on public land, stipulates that if the reflectors are no longer being used they have to be removed.

On my way up the mountain, I met Ken Nielson, a long-time Logan resident and hiker, who says he’s hiked to the top of Saddleback over one hundred times.

“I was up here last week, and when I got back down, some of the people at work said that they were getting ready to dismantle the billboard reflectors. And so I said, “Well, I'm gonna go up there and check that out,” because I remember when they put them up there, when we were just kids. There was nothing there; they staged it down on the golf course and flew everything up with helicopters and put them up. And now they're going to do the same thing except take them down,” said Nielson.

Within the first year of installment the Forest Service asked Mountain State Telephone and Telegraph Co. to paint the reflectors a non-reflective color because they were receiving complaints from residents due to the glare. What Ken Nielson remembers most is the resident’s curiosity about them.

“Yeah, people wanted to know what was kind of going on. And you have to remember in the valley, because we were such a small community, I mean, the whole valley, I think there was only 11,000 people. So, you know, all the little towns and all that kind of stuff out there thinking wow, this is this is big time technology that they're putting up there on top of that mountain,” Nielson said.

After talking with Nielson, I continued my way up.

I'm on top of Saddleback mountain. I’m sitting here in between what used to be the two reflectors. And now all that's left are two scaffolds that are partially disassembled. And then the reflectors themselves are now on the ground.

For the next two weeks, a helicopter will deliver a crew every morning to the top of the mountain to disassemble the reflectors. Then the helicopter will bring the parts off the mountain piece-by-piece. Framme said the job should be done by Memorial Day weekend.

Ken Neilson told me what he thinks about these Logan fixtures coming down after so many years.

“It's terrible. It's kind of like a landmark because whenever we're talking about mountains down in the valley, and you say, check out Saddleback Mountain. Well, where’s Saddleback? You can always tell them, it's where the billboard reflectors are,” said Nielson.

Framme said the advantage of taking them down is to improve the scenic beauty of the site by restoring the mountain to its natural state. But he acknowledges that removing reflectors in other parts of the Utah has caused some surprising reactions. He said some people just don’t want to see them go.

“I was talking to the some of the techs, and they had relayed similar stories from other sites where reflectors were coming down. Yeah, I mean, folks, see those as you know, a landmark and they have connection to them.”

There’s one thing we can all agree on; it’s going to be harder to point out Saddleback Mountain to the next generation of Logan residents without its massive, mysterious billboards.

To see a video of the reflector dissasembly atop the mountain, click here.
Video credit: Addison Odum

For a video of the helicopter bring reflector parts down from Saddleback to the Green Canyon parking lot, click here.
Video credit: Max McDermott

Max is a neuroscientist and science reporter. His research revolves around an underexplored protein receptor, called GPR171, and its possible use as a pharmacological target for pain. He reports on opioids, outer space and Great Salt Lake. He loves Utah and its many stories.