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The beginning of a new year offers a time for pause. It is a time to acknowledge those who have laid the foundation upon which we will build the future, to recognize the history of the area of northeast Minnesota that today is facing so many new threats.
In 1902, the U.S. Land Office withdrew from settlement 500,000 acres that would be part of the future Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The unique scenic values of the border zone were recognized by early conservationists, including General Christopher C. Andrews, Minnesota’s first forest commissioner. Between 1905 and 1908, he persuaded the Land Office to withdraw another 659,700 acres.
In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt formally approved the designation of Superior National Forest from previously withdrawn public domain lands. In that same year, Minnesota created the 1,200,000-acre statutory Superior Game Refuge, which included most of the present day BWCA wilderness, in an attempt to save the threatened caribou and moose populations. (The caribou are gone; a century later moose are on the brink.)
The Weeks Act of 1911 was signed into law by President William Howard Taft. It gave the federal government permission to purchase private land to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds. Initiated by Congressman John Weeks of Massachusetts, the act is considered one of the most successful pieces of conservation legislation in U.S. history.
Beginning in 1925, lumber baron Edward Backus proposed building a series of seven dams along the boundary waters lakes in order to create hydroelectric power for his paper mills. This would have significantly raised water levels on Little Vermilion Lake, Loon Lake, Lac La Croix, Saganaga, and Crooked Lakes. Conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer, with support from attorneys Sewell Tyng, Frank Hubachek, Charles Kelly, and Frederick Winston, spent five years defeating the plan.
In 1926, Agriculture Secretary W. M. Jardine, under President Calvin Coolidge, established a policy to protect 640,000 acres in Superior National Forest as a roadless wilderness area, to “retain as much as possible of the land which has recreational opportunities of this nature as a wilderness.”
In 1930, the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act was the first statute to expressly order that federal land be protected as wilderness. As signed into law by President Herbert Hoover, it withdrew federal land from homesteading, prevented the alteration of natural water levels, prohibited logging within 400 feet of shorelines, and preserved the wilderness nature of shorelines. The act was a defeat for Edward Backus and brought an end to the railroad logging era in the boundary waters. (This action was led by Minnesota senator Henrik Shipstead and 5th District representative Walter Newton. When Newton was appointed personal secretary for President Hoover, his vacancy was filled by William I. Nolan.) In 1933, Minnesota passed the “Little Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act” for state lands.
In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Quetico Superior Committee, to consult and advise the federal departments and agencies operating in the Superior area. All major phases of management of the Boundary Water Canoe Area were mutually agreed upon by this committee and the U.S. Forest Service.
In 1938, the U.S. Forest Service established the Superior Roadless Primitive Area with boundaries similar to the future BWCA wilderness. This was in response to a development campaign to build “a road to every lake.” In 1941, the Forest Service established a no-cut zone of 362,000 acres along the international border.
In 1948, Congress passed the Thye-Blatnik Act to buy resorts and private lands in the wilderness. It also provided for in-lieu-of-tax payments to Cook, Lake, and St. Louis counties for federal wilderness land. The legislation was a team effort by Republican senator Edward John Thye and DFL representative John Blatnik, who served 13 terms as the 8th District congressman.
In 1949, President Harry Truman issued an executive order for an airspace reservation over the wilderness, which prohibited planes from landing on lakes and flights below 4,000 feet. Fly-in resorts had made Ely the busiest inland float plane base in the world.
In 1956, Hubert Humphrey and 1st District representative August Andresen helped author the Thye-Humphrey-Blatnik-Andresen Bill, which authorized an additional $2 million to complete acquisition of inholdings within the wilderness.
In 1958, the U.S. Forest Service changed the name of Superior Roadless Area to Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).
From 1962 to 1964, increased controversy emerged over logging, timber roads, motorboats, and snowmobiles in the BWCA. In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, and the BWCA became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, with an exceptions clause that allowed some logging and use of motors.
In 1965, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman (of Minnesota) issued management changes that increased the no-logging zone, provided for motorboat zoning, and limited some snowmobiling. These changes were made from recommendations of the Freeman-appointed Selke Committee, headed by former Minnesota conservation commissioner George A. Selke.
Over the next decade, controversy continued. In 1972, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) brought forth a lawsuit seeking a court order requiring logging companies to file environmental impact statements. In 1973, federal district judge Phillip Neville, in a lawsuit brought by the Izaak Walton League, ruled to prohibit copper-nickel mining in the BWCA. The decision was reversed upon appeal. In 1974, federal district judge Miles Lord issued a temporary injunction against logging. In 1975, Lord ruled that cutting within blocks of virgin forest violated the intent of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
In 1975, 8th District congressman James Oberstar introduced a bill to resolve BWCA issues by creating a 600,000-acre wilderness (no logging or motors) and a 400,000-acre recreation area (allowing motors). Removing acreage from wilderness protection was widely opposed by environmental groups.
In 1976, Minnesota passed legislation prohibiting mining and peat harvesting in the BWCA. Also in 1976, Minnesota representative Don Fraser of the 5th Congressional District introduced a bill that would give wilderness status to all of the BWCA and would end logging, all motorized vehicles, and mining. BWCA use was traditionally one-third local, one-third by the rest of the state, and one-third by the rest of the nation.
In 1977, the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation held two field hearings. The first was in St. Paul, where notable wilderness supporters included state representative Willard Munger. The second hearing took place in Ely, where Sigurd Olson, renowned Ely author, spoke in favor of the wilderness. Also at this time, Miron “Bud” Heinselman retired from the U.S. Forest Service in order to devote his efforts toward wilderness legislation.
In 1978, California representative Phillip Burton, chair of the Interior’s National Parks and Insular Affairs subcommittee, and Minnesota 4th District representative Bruce Vento drafted another bill, calling for a complete termination of logging. Following negotiations between Ely city attorney Ron Walls and environmental attorney Chuck Dayton (the Dayton-Walls Agreement), the House and Senate passed a revised version of the bill that was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. Our U.S. senators at the time were Wendell Anderson and Muriel Humphrey (who was filling in after her husband’s death); Walter Mondale was U.S. vice president. The BWCA now became the BWCA Wilderness (BWCAW). Over 50,000 acres were added, bringing the total to 1,098,057 acres. Logging was terminated after a one-year phase-out, motor boats restricted and motor size limited, snowmobiles restricted to certain portages, and mining restricted. Between 1979 and 1990, the BWCA Wilderness Act was upheld against legal challenges.
In 1964, in his testimony before the Selke Committee, Sigurd Olson explained why so many have worked so hard to preserve and protect this land. “The night before last, I talked at a banquet… As the time approached, all I could think of was the statement of Albert Einstein shortly before he died: ‘One of the greatest experiences of mankind is to know the sensation of awe and wonder at the mystery of the universe.’
The more I thought about that, the more it seemed to sum up the meaning of wilderness, the awe and wonderment people experience when in undisturbed natural country, realizing that wilderness holds within itself all the mystery of the universe, the story of evolution, of growth and change and beauty from the beginnings of time. Wilderness… is the sense of the primeval, of space, solitude, silence, and the eternal mystery. It is a fragile quality and is destroyed by man and his machines.
When I think of wilderness, I am constantly aware of the fact that all we shall ever have is about 2 percent of the United States’ land mass, 98 percent being subject to non-wilderness. I think of our growing population… These projections give us pause… We should plan therefore not for the immediate future but with a long-range point of view taking in the year 2000 or 3000, hoping that what we do will be for the best interests of the American people for all time.”
In summary, for the past 100 years, political leaders of both parties have worked together to preserve and protect the lakes and lands of the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest. But today, our two Minnesota senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, are preparing to undo a century of bipartisan groundwork.
Klobuchar and Franken are working on legislation that would exchange state school trust fund lands that remain within the borders of the BWCAW for land that is currently part of Superior National Forest, thus removing the land from federal ownership and environmental protections. During the late 1990s, the entire Minnesota federal delegation had agreed upon selling the state land to the federal government with money that was available from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This money would have gone directly into the Permanent School Fund, and would have been collecting interest for the past dozen or more years.
The land sale was derailed by the state’s northeast delegation. These legislators were willing to forgo any money to the school trust fund at that time. Now these same legislators are claiming that our school children have been deprived of trust fund moneys, and we need to immediately exchange 93,000 acres of Superior National Forest so that it can be aggressively mined, leased, and logged in order to generate revenue.
These actions are continuing the controversy that has plagued the Boundary Waters area for the past century. Because the Minnesota Constitution requires the state to retain mineral rights for any land it sells or trades, future confrontations over mining could arise should the state decide to exercise its rights. Copper-nickel mineral exploration is taking place at the very edge of the BWCAW, with mineralization going beneath the lakes.
To facilitate mining, a land exchange, which would remove federal protections such as the Weeks Act, would enable mining companies to open-pit mine on land that is now part of Superior National Forest. Contrary to being in the best interests of school children, if the mineral rights on such land are owned by an entity other than the trust, no money would go into the school trust fund.
State ownership of what is now Superior National Forest would also allow intensive logging; the DNR is already changing its forestry rotation plans due to pressure from the state legislature on maximizing money to the school trust. Meanwhile, no one fully understands the pressures of climate change on the forest.
Interest money from the Permanent School Fund currently contributes about $26 per Minnesota public pupil. The state allots approximately $9,000 per pupil (general funds, property taxes, and federal dollars). Public education will never be funded by the school trust fund, nor should northeast Minnesota be expected to subsidize today’s public education, especially when it would come at the expense of productive land and clean water sources for future generations.
So why are Senators Klobuchar and Franken so determined to dismantle Superior National Forest? Why is newly elected Representative Rick Nolan preparing to join them, even though he defeated Chip Cravaack, who introduced a bill for a complete land exchange last year? Seventy-four environmental groups from across the U.S. have signed a letter urging legislators not to support land-exchange legislation.
The year 2013 is an open book. How Klobuchar, Franken, and Nolan will appear in the pages of history is still unwritten. That will be determined by the children of the future.