Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Brief History of the Boundary Waters

Common Loon
Tomorrow, June 23, I’ll be leading a bird hike at 7 am along the Superior Hiking Trail starting at the Oberg Mountain parking area. Spaces on the hike are limited, but last I checked there were still a couple of openings: call (​218)-370-8342 for more information. Then at 11 I’ll be at the Grand Marais Community Center for lunch and to give a presentation, and there will be an update from the Save the Boundary Waters campaign. These events are sponsored by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.

In 1978, Congress passed into law the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. The Boundary Waters is a 1,090,000-acre area within the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota, administrated by the U.S. Forest Service. It is one of the most visited wildernesses in the United States, a popular destination for canoeing, hiking, and fishing.

Although the Boundary Waters Act was passed forty years ago, protection of the land to ensure preserving its primitive nature was occurring long before that, and was not particularly controversial. All the way back in 1902, Minnesota's Forest Commissioner persuaded the state to reserve half a million acres near the BWCAW from being sold to loggers. In 1905 he visited the area on a canoe trip and was impressed by the area's natural beauty. He was able to save another 141,000 acres from being sold for development. He soon reached out to the Ontario government to encourage them to preserve some of the area's land on their side of the border, noting that the area could be "an international forest reserve and park of very great beauty and interest."

By the early 1920s, roads had begun to be built through the Superior National Forest to promote public access to the area for recreation. In 1926 a section of 640,000 acres within the Superior National Forest was set aside as a roadless wilderness area by Secretary of Agriculture William Marion Jardine. In 1930, Congress passed the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, which prohibited logging and dams within that area to preserve its natural water levels. Additional land purchases and shifts in boundaries expanded the amount of protected land owned by the government , and in 1938, the area was renamed the Superior Roadless Primitive Area. In 1948, the Thye-Blatnik Bill authorized the government to purchase the few remaining privately owned homes and resorts within the area. In 1949, President Harry Truman signed an executive order prohibiting aircraft from flying over the area below 4,000 feet. I’m 66 years old, and all this happened before I was even born.

The area was officially named the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in 1958. The Wilderness Act of 1964 organized it as a unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act established the Boundary Waters regulations much as they are today, with limitations on motorboats and snowmobiles, a permit-based quota system for recreational access, and restrictions on logging and mining within the area. More than a quarter million Americans visit the Boundary Waters every year.

People sometimes tell me that environmentalists like me who want to protect what’s left of wilderness and wildlife on this over-developed planet love nature and not people. (Ironically, it’s pretty much those same critics who complained this week when I spoke out against a federal policy taking helpless immigrant children from their parents and putting them in what were euphemistically called “tender age” facilities.)

The truth is that I love people—I’m a human being myself, and my husband and I produced three brand new people while we’ve never produced a bird. I have and drive a car and have taken great pleasure in riding in motorized boats on several occasions—my very best baby loon photos were taken from a motorized boat. I also love visiting my daughter in New York City and my son in Orlando—two places where people abound. I firmly believe in the value of human beings, individually and collectively.

Many people make the argument that wildlife and the natural world deserve to exist for their own sake. I believe that, too. But I would not argue politically for this fervent, deeply spiritual belief over the fervent beliefs of other people. But I do argue politically for us to protect the rights and needs of large groups of people. Wilderness, something there is very little of left in our nation, is something that a great many people need. Indeed, as I pointed out, people recognized this need for roadless, pristine areas over a century ago.

I record birds. Not a lot of us do that anymore, at least not to produce pristine bird and natural ambience recordings, but it’s getting nearly impossible to find a spot where I can make an hour-long recording that has no unnatural sounds in at all. Virtually all campgrounds are set up for RVs now, and even in areas designed for tent camping, it’s almost impossible to go to sleep without hearing vehicle motors, generators, and a cacophony of sounds from other campers’ entertainment technology. Most people are capable of loving human beings while wanting at least a little respite sometimes. I also love history. Other people love visiting historical sights and even reenacting today such things that happened historically as Civil War battles—they’ve had land set aside for their needs. I love seeing at least some wilderness set aside as my historical heroes such as Longfellow, Thoreau, Emerson, Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir valued it.

Those of us who need to experience a little solitude or tech-free quiet, and the chance to experience the kinds of wildlife that thrive away from people, deserve at least a few areas of designated wilderness in our democracy. It’s scary to me that people without a real understanding of a large segment of humanity can’t acknowledge this deep-rooted need for natural beauty, and that politicians are using wilderness areas, be they national parks, monuments, or forests, as political bargaining chips. We northern Minnesotans have a treasure in our backyards valued by millions of Americans, one that has been recognized and protected since 1902. Let's keep it that way.