Boundary Waters Canoe Area
A long fight to preserve the wilderness
On July 8, 1977, ecologist and author Sigurd Olson addressed a crowd of 1,000 people that was gathered at Ely High School to participate in a congressional hearing. Shouting over boos and catcalls, with an effigy of himself swinging from a nearby post, Olson defended a bill sponsored by Congressman Donald M. Fraser that would become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978. "This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent," Olson said. "We can afford to cherish and protect it. Some places should be preserved from development or exploitation for they satisfy a human need for solace, belonging, and perspective."
That's the Boundary Waters for you: on the one hand, a place of unmatched beauty that inspires odes to peace and solitude, and, on the other hand, arguably the state's most controversial piece of land. This million-acre wilderness area within the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota became the subject of broad public debate in the 1920s, when environmentalist Ernest C. Oherholtzer mounted a successful opposition to logging companies seeking to build dams in the region. Henrik Shipstead, U.S. Senator from Minnesota, sponsored the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act in 1930, which was an early statute ordering that the land be retained as wilderness. In 1949, airspace over the area was restricted. The push-and-pull between preservationists and industrialists continued until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964. Sponsored by Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, the act designated the BWCA as a place where vehicles were not allowed, where no permanent structures could be built, and where wildlife would be kept in as primitive a setting as possible.
If the second chapter in the story of the BWCA was the signing of the BWCA Wilderness Act, then the third was the signing of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Act fourteen years later. The third act banned logging, mineral prospecting, and mining; all but banned snowmobile use; limited motorboat use; and officially changed the name of the region to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It also provided stipends for resort owners and outfitters who stood to lose customers due to stricter regulations.
But the third chapter in the story of the BWCA is still being written. Canoeists and motorboat owners, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers continue to debate the region's best use. In the mid-1990s, mediators helped reach a compromise on whether trucks could be used to carry boats across portages between motorized lakes. As outfitter Bill Hansen put it in 2003, "Full wilderness status for the Boundary Waters is a very open goal. Having that happen the next year? Probably not. You know, next decade? Probably not. In our lifetimes? Probably not. But, eventually."