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Mainstreet Radio's Bob Kelleher looks back to 1978, when two lawyers drafted an historic compromise that still guides activities in the Boundary Waters today. Report includes various interviews and speech excerpts.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill creating the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Minnesota's million-acre canoe country first joined the National Wilderness system in 1964, but the region was given special exemptions to allow motors, logging and even mining. The controversy over what was appropriate in the wilderness boiled for years until the Dayton-Walls agreement, which became the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act.


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BOB KELLEHER: This time of year, Sawbill Lake's mirror surface reflects an impenetrable wall of pine green, maple red, and aspen gold. The air carries a cool Christmassy blend of balsam and sweet freshwater. And sometimes when the wind drops, there's almost no sound at all. Canoe outfitter Bill Hanson has lived much of his life on the banks of Sawbill Lake, a southern access to the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

BILL HANSON: Well, I can't believe it's been 25 years already.

BOB KELLEHER: Hanson's father bought Sawbill Outfitters in the early 1970s. That's when you were more likely to hear the whine of a motorboat as the call of a loon. All that changed October 21st 1978. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act banned motors here and on dozens of other so-called motorized lakes in Minnesota's federal wilderness.

BILL HANSON: In '78, I wasn't all that pleased that the motors were taken off of Sawbill Lake. I was heavily involved in motor use and had a pretty significant financial stake in it. But looking back now, I can see the deeper wisdom in it.

BOB KELLEHER: Disputes over Minnesota's Canoe Country go back almost a century. Logging and roads have been debated since the 1920s. Float planes were restricted in the 1940s. In the early 1960s, Minnesota US Senator Hubert Humphrey was determined to include Minnesota's Canoe Country in the nation's new federal wilderness system. But some Northeast Minnesotans opposed restrictions that come with wilderness designation.

Humphrey created special language for the Boundary Waters. It allowed motorboats, snowmobiles, and some logging. When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, the Boundary Waters was the nation's only wilderness area, with such exceptions. A decade later, Kevin Proescholdt was working with the pro-wilderness Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Proescholdt was building grassroots support to stop logging, mining, the motors, all he says incompatible with wilderness stewardship.

KEVIN PROESCHOLDT: And this set up a problem where the Boundary Waters was a wilderness in name and was included in that new National Wilderness Preservation System, which was very important, but yet it was not a wilderness in management.

BOB KELLEHER: One by one, mining, logging, snowmobiling, and motorboats were each challenged in federal lawsuits and formal appeals to Forest Service plans. To many, it had become clear the Boundary Waters could only be settled in Congress. Eighth District Congressman Jim Oberstar fired the first shot in October 1975. His bill proposed two zones. One with full wilderness protection, the other where logging, boats, and other motorized recreation were to be permitted. Oberstar explained in a 1977 press conference.

JIM OBERSTAR: My view is that we ought to have protection but more intensified and more broad-based recreational use of the BWCA, plus some very limited commercial timber harvesting in the second growth areas of the BWCA.

BOB KELLEHER: Conservationists enlisted the help of Minneapolis Congressman Don Fraser. Speaking at the same press conference, Fraser explained his bill drafted early that year.

DON FRASER: My bill principally restores the BWCA to a true wilderness status. In addition, we add about 35,000 acres in particular points around the periphery of the BWCA, simply to provide a better boundary. We take in other sides of lakes where the lakes are divided and so on.

BOB KELLEHER: Resolving the dispute fell to a US House Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation. Two Minnesota field hearings were scheduled in July, 1977. The first in Saint Paul packed a State Capitol hearing room to overflow. Predictably, the Saint Paul hearing was stacked with wilderness supporters, like Duluth State Representative Willard Munger.

WILLARD MUNGER: We must recognize the need for more wilderness and land allocation as a means of maintaining and restoring complete natural ecosystems. Full wilderness status for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, as proposed by Congressman Fraser, is long overdue.

BOB KELLEHER: The Ely hearing the next day was very different. Logging trucks lined the street. An effigy of environmentalist Sigurd Olson and Friends of the Boundary Waters Founder Bud Heintzelman swung from one truck's boom. Inside speakers were shouted down. Kevin Proescholdt remembers well when Sigurd Olson rose to speak.

KEVIN PROESCHOLDT: His views were not universally shared by everybody in Ely. And his testimony, despite the tumultuous boos and jeering at the field hearing, was quite eloquent and beautiful about the need to protect Boundary Waters.

BOB KELLEHER: After the hearings, congressional staff drafted another bill. It was co-sponsored by Minnesota Congressman Bruce Vento and California's Phil Burton, but it stalled too, until grueling negotiations between environmental attorney Chuck Dayton and Ely City attorney Ron Walz. The final measure is known as the Dayton-Walz agreement. Under Dayton-Walz, some lakes would remain motorized but many converted to canoe wilderness.

There would be no logging. With two small exceptions, snowmobiling was banned. And the size of the Boundary Waters would expand. Dayton-Walz passed Congress just hours before the session closed. President Carter signed the bill into law October 21st, 1978. The years since haven't been without dispute. In the mid-1990s, weeks of mediation brought another compromise. In 1998, trucks returned to the wilderness to carry boats across two portages between motorized lakes.

MIKE FORSMAN: When the portages were reopened up, the two portages were reopened up, a lot of the hostilities disappeared.

BOB KELLEHER: Mike Forsman is a Saint Louis County commissioner and one time mayor of Ely.

MIKE FORSMAN: That gesture has helped a lot. It's given a lot of our senior citizens the ability to continue going into Basswood where they fished all their lives and to bring their grandkids in there and fish, where they wouldn't be able to do it without those portages being opened.

BOB KELLEHER: But few believe the disputes have been laid to eternal rest. Forsman worries about new efforts to close roads and create additional wilderness on the outer borders of the BWCAW.

MIKE FORSMAN: There's always a movement to take and make it more restriction, less logging, less this.

BOB KELLEHER: But as time passes, there are fewer people who remember the time before the creation of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Forest Service Ranger Gary Robinson is checking the boat ramp at Sawbill Lake. Robinson says visitors have adopted a wilderness ethic.

GARY ROBINSON: When I started here 25 years ago, we'd pick up 250-gallon garbage bags of garbage in one trip. And nowadays, we'll come back with maybe a quarter of that amount of garbage.

BOB KELLEHER: Outfitter Bill Hanson says the nation's desire for wilderness will only increase, but for complete wilderness, the Boundary Waters may have to wait.

BILL HANSON: Full wilderness status for the Boundary Waters is a very open goal. Having that happen next year, probably not,. Next decade, probably not. In our lifetimes, probably not. But eventually.

BOB KELLEHER: Bill Hanson picks up his paddle and heads for home. Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio, Sawbill Lake.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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