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BWCA: the embattled wilderness.

For 60 years this water-blessed million-acre gem has survived roads and dams and sonic booms and overuse-and in the process helped us define the way we value wilderness.

A quarter of a century ago, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. This landmark law formally established the National Wilderness Preservation System and spelled out the basic guidelines for the protection and management of Wilderness areas in the United States.

The 1964 law designated Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) as one of the original units of this new national wilderness system. The million-acre BWCA is a portion of the international Quetico-superior Ecosystem, which includes another million acres in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park. The BWCA, first established nearly 40 years before the enactment of the 1964 Wilderness Act, had helped shape the country's evolving set of wilderness policies long before President Johnson's signature and would continue to do so in the years following.

In September 1926, Secretary of Agriculture William Jardine established one of the nation's first wilderness areas in Minnesota's Superior National Forest. He took this action to resolve a dispute over a proposal by local Chambers of Commerce and the Forest Service to build "a road to every lake"-an ambitious undertaking in this paradise of over 1,000 lakes. Conservationists in groups like the infant Izaak Walton League of America opposed the roads and pushed for wilderness protections for the entire National Forest.

Jardine's wilderness policy for the Superior-while allowing construction of some roads ended the worst parts of the ambitious plan in typical compromise fashion. The Jardine Policy recognized -the exceptional value of large portions of the Superior National Forest, containing its principal lakes and waterways, for the propagation of fish and game, for canoe travel, and for affording recreational opportunities to those who seek and enjoy wilderness conditions. It will be the policy of this Department,' Jardine continued, "to retain as much as possible of the land which has recreational opportunities of this nature as a wilderness."

To end the threat of roadbuilding, Jardine declared that no roads will be built as far as the Forest Service can control the situation." To emphasize this point, Jardine promised that "the Forest Service will leave no less than 1,000 square miles of the best canoe country in the Superior without roads of any character. "

But Jardine's designation of the wilderness area did not end the problems for conservationists concerned about the area's primitive nature. Even as Jardine promulgated his wilderness policy, timber baron Edward Wellington Backus engineered an international stratagem to cut the tall pine in the wilderness and flood the canoe country with a series of hydropower dams along the international border. These dams would have raised some lake levels 80 feet, flooding shorelines and drowning rapids and waterfalls.

Despite Backus' enormous financial wealth and political power, a small band of conservationists led by Ernest C. Oberholtzer fought the scheme. Oberholtzer described the area and the threats posed by Backus to readers of AMERICAN FORESTS in a series of three articles in the fall of 1929. "Either there must be some prompt and adequate declaration of public policy on the part of both countries," Oberholtzer warned, "or this rare region is doomed. Private enterprise has run riot like a bull in a botanical garden."

By 1930 Oberholtzer and his allies had convinced Congress to protect the canoe country with passage of the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, a law prohibiting logging in the Superior's wilderness area within 400 feet of shorelines and forbidding the alteration of natural water levels in the area. This law, an elated Oberholtzer wrote, set a national precedent as the first statute in which Congress ordered federal land retained in its wilderness state.

The Great Depression of the 1930s and World War 11 brought a lull in the threats to the wilderness. But the war's end brought a renewed onslaught against the Superior Roadless Area, as the wilderness had been renamed. Resorts sprang up on small parcels of privately owned land deep within the wilderness, serviced by a burgeoning floatplane business. The town of Ely became the largest inland seaplane base on the continent. And logging in portions of the area, though not prohibited in the backcountry by the Jardine policy or the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, resumed in earnest, using roads and mechanized harvesting. Even portions of the 1,000 square miles proclaimed by Jardine to be free of "roads of any character" became riddled with logging roads.

Then, as now, the Forest Service lacked funds to quickly purchase private lands and resorts when they were offered on the market. In 1943 the Izaak Walton League formed an Endowment with a $100,000 bequest and many small donations. The Endowment worked as a revolving fund to identify key parcels in the wilderness interior, buy the lands, and later resell them to the federal government, usually at a loss, when federal funds became available to the Forest Service.

In 1948 Congress passed the Thye-Blatnik Act, like the Endowment an early prototype of the Land and Water Conservation (LAWCON) Fund. The Act initially appropriated $500,000 to the Forest Service for the purchase of private lands in the Superior Roadless Area.

To end the floatplane problem, President Truman in 1949 established an unprecedented airspace reservation prohibiting floatplane landings and low-altitude flights over the area.

Logging roads continued to crisscross the Superior Roadless Area under the conflicting management directives of wilderness and timber production. In 1958 the Forest Service even changed the area's name to Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) because the term "roadless area" no longer applied.

In 1949 Hubert Humphrey came to Washington as a newly elected U.S. Senator from Minnesota. He supported efforts to secure the airspace reservation, and came to know key Minnesota wilderness proponents like Sigurd Olson and William Magie. In 1956 Humphrey first introduced the Wilderness Bill in Congress, but it would take another eight years to become law.

In 1964 Congress finally passed the Wilderness Act and designated the BWCA as an original unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Unfortunately, the law included Forest Service language that only perpetuated conflicting management directives for the BWCA. Humphrey wrote in two exceptions to continue logging and motorized use within just the BWCA.

So the BWCA continued as a wilderness in name but not in management, and conflicts over its use and future continued. From 1969 until 1977 many of those conflicts surfaced in federal district court. The Izaak Walton League sued to prevent mining in the BWCA, and other suits sought to end logging of virgin forest and snowmobile use.

In 1975 freshman Congressman James Oberstar D-MN) introduced legislation to resolve public confusion over the status of the BWCA. But his plan would have dismembered the BWCA, removing 400,000 acres from wilderness status to create a national recreation area where logging, snowmobiling, and motorboating would have been allowed.

Alarmed conservationists turned to another Minnesota Congressman for help. Donald Fraser D-MN) introduced competing legislation that took a different approach. Fraser's plan would have changed the special BWCA language in the 1964 Wilderness Act and would have ended logging, mining, and motorized use. Compromise legislation authored by Reps. Phillip Burton (D-CA) and Bruce Vento D-MN) eventually passed Congress in October 1978.

The BWCA Wilderness Act (Public Law 95-495) provided for "the protection, enhancement, and preservation of the natural values" of the BWCA "as wilderness." This law finally ended logging, severely restricted mining, established a mining buffer zone around portions of the BWCA Wilderness, reintroduced snowmobiles for five more winters, and cut back motorboat use from 60 percent of the BWCA water area to 33 percent (several long phase-outs ultimately will reduce that figure to 24 percent). Significantly, Congress renamed BWCA yet again by adding "Wilderness" at the end.

Did this latest national debate end the fight to protect the wilderness character of the BWCA? Unfortunately not.

Some local residents, chafing under the 1978 law and long accustomed to previously authorized uses in the BWCA, continually attempt to amend or weaken the Act. The Forest Service, faced with the task of implementing the complicated provisions of the 1978 law, has been reluctant to implement or enforce some provisions unpopular with area residents. For example, through the National Forest planning process, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and other conservation groups seek to terminate three truck-serviced road portages as Congress directed in the 1978 law.

One threat to the area's wild character comes from the very people who visit it. Boundary Waters has become the most heavily visited Wilderness in the National Wilderness System, accommodating over one million visitor-days of use each year. The area has pioneered a number of special regulations to limit the impacts of such heavy use, including a can and bottle ban, visitor registration, and, since 1976, visitor-entry quotas based on a computer travel model.

The BWCA Wilderness could also be threatened by mining for copper-nickel sulfide ores or precious metals. Although the 1978 law tightly restricts mining activities, no actual ban on mining exists. That use poses potentially disastrous problems.

The last few years have seen dramatic increases in military jet traffic, an increasing problem for many Wilderness areas and National Parks. The jets fly over the canoe country in a military airspace called Snoopy Military Operations Area, just above the low protected airspace established by Truman in 1949. Military jet flights increased nearly tenfold between 1983 and 1986, yet the scanty environmental review documents failed to examine the impacts of jet flights with their screaming afterburners and shattering sonic booms over the nation's most heavily visited wilderness.

Last summer the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and other conservation groups initiated litigation that would prevent utilization of the Snoopy airspace because inadequate environmental review had occurred. The lawsuit is still pending.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the canoe country comes from acid rain, a problem unforeseen when the Wilderness Act became law 25 years ago. The BWCA Wilderness is rated as the Minnesota area most sensitive to acid deposition, enduring acid inputs at levels that damaged the most sensitive Scandinavian lakes and their aquatic ecosystems.

Although Minnesota Pollution Control Agency researchers believe that aquatic resources are the most sensitive, increasing research may show that the forests of canoe country are also at risk from acid deposition.

Congress has so far failed to enact a national acid-rain control plan. But Minnesota has taken its own step to protect sensitive resources like the BWCA from acid rain.

In 1982 the state legislature passed the Acid Deposition Control Act, first such law in the nation. It established a systematic process to deal with acid rain generated within Minnesota's borders. The law directed the state to identify sensitive areas, undertake rulemaking hearings to set an acid-deposition standard for those sensitive areas, and devise an acid-deposition control plan to curtail Minnesota emissions in order to attain and maintain that standard.

The lengthy process concluded in 1986 when the Pollution Control Agency adopted an acid-deposition standard of 11 kilograms of sulfate per hectare per year for the state's sensitive areas, and also adopted a control plan requiring sulfur-dioxide emission reductions by the state's two largest electric utilities.

No one could have predicted the long and contentious route taken to protect the BWCA Wilderness through the decades. Fortunately, conservationists continue to seek ways to parry the threats to canoe country. Their success bodes well for the future and for BWCA'S continued leadership in setting wilderness policy. AF
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Title Annotation:Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area
Author:Proescholdt, Kevin
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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