BWCA: The Embattled Wilderness

Article excerpt

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. …