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1964 federal law set stage for the second “W” in Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Steve Piragis of Ely, Minn., portages his solo canoe around a set of falls near Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota in April 2010. (Sam Cook / / 2
A group of seven canoers from Camp Nan A Bo Sho in Lakewood, Wis., head to the west side of Rose Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota after stopping to swim in June 2004. (News Tribune file photo)2 / 2

DULUTH -- The wheels were set in motion in 1902, when federal officials set aside a half-million acres in northeastern Minnesota, keeping it wild instead of offering it to homesteaders.

But it wasn’t until Sept. 3, 1964, that the U.S. government decided to add an official land management designation of wilderness for Minnesota’s famed Boundary Waters.

Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System and setting aside 9.1 million acres as forever protected from development, including about 1 million acres in what was then the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Since then, official federal wilderness has grown to 758 different areas covering 110 million acres, including places such as Isle Royale National Park on Lake Superior.

“I first visited Isle Royale when I was 6, and I’m happy to say it looks pretty much the same today,” more than 50 years later, said Phyllis Green, now the park’s superintendent. “There are still questions. Do we need more wildernesses? How do we manage wilderness? But there’s no doubt the act has worked to preserve some special places.”

Yet the signing of the 1964 act did not end the debate over the benefits and costs of wilderness, its importance in the modern world and its value to humans.

The 1964 legislation also didn’t resolve the most heated issues surrounding the BWCA — whether to ban logging, mining and motorized activity in the area. It took another 14 years before the Boundary Waters saw site-specific legislation — adding the word “wilderness” to its name — that brought the canoe country preserve more in line with other formal wilderness areas in the U.S.

Overwhelming support

The bill President Johnson signed passed the U.S. House with only one dissenting vote, a landslide that belies a long, hard-fought effort.

Henry David Thoreau wrote of the value of wilderness 110 years before Johnson signed the law. And the idea of setting aside official wild places goes as far back as John Muir, in the late 1800s. Over the following decades noted conservationists such as Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson and Bob Marshall called for federal wilderness protections as concern grew that initial efforts to preserve wild lands — national parks, national forests and national wildlife refuges — weren’t enough to guarantee the future of wild places.

Wild places needed a federal law that “would give them as close an approximation to permanence as could be realized in a world of shifting desires,” Marshall wrote.

The successful effort to stop a proposed hydroelectric dam inside Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument in the 1950s spurred a national movement for official wilderness. Howard Zahniser, director of the Wilderness Society and a leader in the effort to stop the dam, wrote the first draft of a wilderness bill in 1955; it was introduced in Congress in 1956.

In April of that year, famed Ely conservationist Sigurd Olson wrote U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey urging Humphrey to support the legislation.

“… I feel strongly that this is the last chance to preserve the wilderness on this continent, for we are on the verge of an era where the pressures to destroy or change it will become greater than anything we have ever experienced,” Olson wrote to the Minnesota Democrat.

Humphrey agreed, with some exceptions, and the Senate passed the bill twice — but the House didn’t act at first. Eventually, after eight years, 66 revisions, 18 public hearings and some 6,000 pages of public testimony, most of it in favor of designating wilderness, the Wilderness Act passed the U.S. House in August 1964.

Former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie, who in 1964 was a congressman representing southeastern Minnesota, was an author on the House bill. Quie, a Republican, said there was little opposition at the time and recalled that wilderness was not a partisan issue. A longtime outdoorsman, farmer and horseman, Quie said the idea of protecting the last remaining wild places in the U.S. “just made good sense.”

“I had been personally interested in wilderness and preserving wild places since I was 10,” said Quie, who was born in Dennison in southeast Minnesota.

Now 90, Quie talked in an interview about hunting elk with wilderness supporters in what is now Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in the 1950s. “I told them that if they ever needed an author, if they needed my help, I would sign on to the bill,” he recalled.

Quie did that, and he was there on the podium with the president when Johnson signed the bill 50 years ago.

“I’m very proud I could help that effort move forward,” Quie said. “I had done a lot of canoeing up in that country when I was younger, and I don’t see how you could argue it isn’t a place that needed to be preserved.”

Adding another ‘W’ to BWCA

While Boundary Waters wilderness supporters called the 1964 legislation a huge step forward, they also said it stopped short of what they had hoped for.

“Obviously without the federal wilderness system there would be no BWCAW. Everything up to that point had been done by management or proclamation by land managers. The 1964 act made it permanent,” said Kevin Proescholdt, longtime director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

Proescholdt, now a board member of the group Wilderness Watch, was among the key environmental players in the framing of the 1978 BWCAW Act that, he says, was necessary because many details were left unresolved in 1964.

“As far as 1964 went, it still allowed a lot of exemptions for the Boundary Waters that made it less than a total wilderness. It had those unique exemptions in there allowing logging and motors and snowmobiling that no other wilderness had,” Proescholdt said.

That led wilderness supporters to continue to push for tighter restrictions, while timber, mining and motorized use interests in Minnesota fought back. Lawsuits were filed to stop logging and prevent mining exploration in the BWCA. Countersuits and appeals followed.

The battle raged back and forth through the 1970s. Both sides introduced legislation in Congress. U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, representing northeastern Minnesota, introduced a bill that would have withdrawn much of the BWCA from wilderness designation to create a motorized, logged and developed federal recreation area. U.S. Rep. Don Fraser, representing Minneapolis, introduced rival legislation that would have banned all logging and mining and most motors from the entire BWCA and expanded the area’s borders.

Hearings were held in Washington and Minnesota, including a tense session in Ely in July 1977. Both sides dug in and the stalemate wore on. Eventually, several powerful lawmakers in Washington laid down an edict: The BWCA debate was among Minnesotans, and Minnesotans needed to settle it — once and for all.

Two Minnesota attorneys — environmentalist Chuck Dayton and Ely City Attorney Ron Walls — were picked to hammer out a compromise that, in large part, set the boundaries and rules for the BWCAW as they stand today. On Oct. 21, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the compromise into law — the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, formally adding the second “W” to the title.

“We got a wilderness area that, for the most part, finally fit the federal definition,” Proescholdt said. “Is it perfect? No. Do I still think there is too much motorized use in the BWCAW? Yes. But the law was laid down on the side of preserving wilderness, and that was huge.”

Backlash, discontent continue

Ironically, Quie would re-enter the wilderness timeline in 1978, when he was running for governor and when he opposed tightening BWCA restrictions on motorboats, logging and snowmobiling. Quie was considered to be the benefactor of DFL infighting on the BWCA issue in 1978; the in-state battle helped him beat DFLer Rudy Perpich in the race for governor.

Quie, however, now says he probably was more right in 1964 than he was in 1978, saying the added protections for the BWCAW appear to be working well.

In 1978 “I was against taking the motors off, especially on the bigger lakes, because of the weather and such,” Quie said. “But, if you look back at it now, it’s worked pretty well without the motors. So I was wrong. They didn’t need the motors after all.”

Former Ely mayor and longtime St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman disagrees. Forsman hasn’t changed his mind that the 1964 Wilderness Act never was necessary, and that the 1978 restrictions only added to the problems.

Forsman says the best job he ever had was working for Canadian Wilderness Outfitters in the 1960s, fixing outboard motors, cleaning camp kits and hauling tourists in motorboats, called towboats, on the first leg of their canoe trips into the Boundary Waters and Quetico.

“We used to get them way up to the Canadian side of Basswood by noon to start their trips — now that’s a two-day paddle for them,” Forsman said. “That job was so much fun. We were outside a lot, on the lakes, running canoes or fixing motors … we got to meet so many great people.”

Despite his affection for his days as a canoe outfitter employee, the half-century that’s passed since the original Wilderness Act was signed has done nothing to change Forsman’s mind that federal wilderness has stunted Ely’s growth. Already hindered when the last iron ore mine near town closed in 1967, Ely, the primary gateway to the BWCAW, has seen shrinking population over the past 40 years.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that wilderness, as they declared it in 1964, has hurt my community. That’s my personal opinion, that hasn’t changed,” Forsman said.

The 1978 BWCAW Act did even more harm, Forsman believes, because it shut many local people out of the wilderness — or at least from the way they had enjoyed it for decades, driving a boat with a motor on it. Moreover, the wilderness designation changed the region’s thriving tourism industry, forcing out many resorts and fishing camps.

“When I was growing up there were so many cars with canoes on them in town you had a hard time crossing the street,” Forsman said. “Now, we have 39 buildings for sale in downtown Ely. ... Sure, a few outfitters are making money. But not like it used to be.”

Less rancor, but challenges loom

Others say most Minnesotans, even most people in communities around the wilderness, have moved on and adapted. Squabbles come and go, but there is little call remaining to undo wilderness.

“In terms of our wilderness, the BWCAW, I do sense that a lot of the sort of resentment that existed at the time it was created is melting away,” said Bill Hansen, owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters on Sawbill Lake north of Tofte. “Partly that’s because it’s been here 50 years, and partly it’s because the people who were resentful 50 years ago have died off. It’s not that controversy doesn’t still exist, but it’s much lower than it was in the 1970s. We’ve been here (at Sawbill Outfitters) 58 years, so we’ve seen the whole thing.”

Even if there are fewer people calling for undoing wilderness rules, Proescholdt said wilderness areas face challenges on many fronts, including climate change. And those challenges will bring calls for humans to intervene, to get involved, to take back control. He said he hopes the urge is suppressed.

“My hope is that, with wilderness, we don’t try to meddle, even if the underlying issue is the result of human activity,” he said.

Green, the Isle Royale superintendent, said the first rule of wilderness should continue to be hands-off in most cases. She oversees the big Lake Superior island park that has more than 130,000 acres, of which about 99 percent is designated federal wilderness.

On Isle Royale, for example, there’s a question of whether historic commercial fishing settlements should remain — whether their cultural importance outweighs the definition of formal wilderness. Green also is trying to mediate a prolonged debate on how far the Park Service should go to ensure wolves survive on Isle Royale, where their numbers are dwindling.

With only about 10 wolves remaining thanks in part to inbreeding, some scientists have called for a “genetic rescue” of the species by transplanting new wolves to the island. But others have urged a continued hands-off approach. The issue is now under study by the Park Service with a formal answer expected in a few years.

“In years to come, on every protected landscape, there’s going to be this discussion, how far do we go to help?” Green said. “Get ready for that debate.”

Either way, Green noted, she hopes the public’s support of wilderness doesn’t wane.

“I hope, 50 years from now, we still have wild places where we let nature dominate,” she said. “Places where nature calls the shots.”

More wilderness in the Midwest

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is by far the largest, but it’s not the only official federal wilderness in the Upper Midwest. In fact, it’s not the only one in Minnesota. There also are the Agassiz (4,000 acres) and Tamarac (2,180 acres) wilderness areas in the bog country of northwestern Minnesota.

In Wisconsin, about 80 percent of the 69,371 acres of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is designated as official federal wilderness, the largest wilderness in the Badger State. There also are five Wilderness Areas in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin totaling more than 44,000 acres. They range from the 4,292-acre Porcupine Lake Wilderness to the 18,188-acre Headwaters Wilderness.  

Most of Isle Royale National Park — some 132,000 acres — is managed as official federal wilderness. Michigan also is home to a dozen other, smaller wilderness areas, including the 92,000-acre Seney Wilderness Area, part of the larger Seney National Wildlife Refuge located on the narrow strip of the Upper Peninsula between Lakes Superior and Huron. About 32,000 acres of the 71,000-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula were designated wilderness earlier this year.

U.S. wilderness at a glance

Wilderness at the start: In 1964, official wilderness designation included 54 areas totaling 9.1 million acres in 13 states.

Wilderness now: 758 wilderness areas totaling nearly 110 million acres.

Wilderness totals: About 5 percent of the U.S. land mass, including Alaska. Only about 2.7 percent of the contiguous U.S. is official wilderness.

Most visited wilderness: The BWCAW, with some 250,000 visitors annually. More than 12 million people visit wilderness areas each year.

What is wilderness?

Everyone might have his or her own answer, but here is Congress’ official definition:

"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value."