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Original Issue


Minnesota is split, Congressmen from the same party are pushing opposing bills, tempers are erupting—over what is best for a matchless million acres

It is a conflict of immense bitterness, a classic battle that combines the fanaticism of a religious war with the deep and indelible passions of an ancient feud between families. It is a controversy with roots that reach back 100 years and, some think, might well continue for another 100. The fight is over a million acres of land that are among the most beautiful on the planet—the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a lake-dotted wilderness along the Minnesota-Canada border. Among its treasures are the famous Ely Greenstone, one of the oldest rocks on earth, having been formed 2.75 billion years ago, and some of the world's most majestic stands of red pine, some of which were seedlings in the 16th century, years before the doughty voyageurs canoed through the area.

The dispute is over the future of this land: Will it be a wilderness protected against incursion by commerce? Or will huge tracts of it be permanently open to all manner of activity—logging and logging roads and God only knows what forms of motorized mass recreation?

There is anger and intransigence on both sides, harsh accusations and huge exaggerations. Yet there can be no doubt that this is a critical point in the history of the Boundary Waters wilderness. Sigurd Olson, 78, the author-guru of the Minnesota north woods, puts it this way: "I have been in this fight since I was a very young man, and others were in it long before me. If we lose now, if the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is dismembered, we will never get it back. This is it. The issues have never been so clearly cut before: do we want to dismantle this wilderness or is it precious enough to save? That is the crux of it."

True enough. But though the issues may be clear and the crux plain to see, the resolution of the controversy is by no means easy to predict. Last week the fate of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, of its lakes, its Greenstone, its red pine, its bald eagles, timber wolves and beavers was bound up in the intricate machinery of the U.S. Congress—held hostage, as it were, to politics.

This is nothing new, for over the years the BWCA has come to be as much an appendage of politics as the defense budget or the interstate highway system. There may be no other section of wilderness in America that has been more frequently threatened with various forms of damage or destruction—and that has been more consistently rescued by the enlightened acts of politicians. Indeed, the current status of the BWCA is no more than a logical—perhaps even inevitable—extension of its history as a political by-product.

At the turn of the 20th century, this region included one of the last large areas of true wilderness in the U.S. In 1902 a farseeing Minnesota forestry commissioner named C. C. Andrews persuaded the U.S. Land Office to set aside as public domain vast tracts of it. In 1909 Teddy Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamation 848 making the area—1,019,000 acres—part of the national forest system. In 1926 Secretary of Agriculture William Jardine, who was an otherwise all but anonymous public servant, issued an executive order designating it a "wilderness area," thereby excluding roads from 1,000 square miles of the best canoe country anywhere. Nevertheless, the notorious timber baron E. W. Backus declared he was going to begin large-scale logging in the area and, more than that, he planned to build a series of hydroelectric dams in the hitherto pristine chain of lakes along the border. After a bitter fight in Congress, a bill was passed that blocked all of Backus' schemes. In the late 1940s there was another threat to the region: bush pilots began regularly flying fishermen to lakes deep inside the forest. A thriving resort industry burgeoned. Sigurd Olson, among others, protested that the wilderness was becoming polluted, ruined by these squads of flying fishermen.

In 1948 Congress passed an act allowing the government to buy up and destroy the resorts. The following year Harry Truman was persuaded to sign an executive order that banned all flights into the BWCA. Steadily over the years there have been various executive orders, acts of Congress and lawsuits that tightly controlled lumbering in the area, limited the use of motorboats and reduced and ultimately forbade mining. In 1973 a federal court issued an injunction against all logging until an environmental impact study could be made. The injunction was overturned last year, but the logging companies agreed to a temporary moratorium. In 1976 the Secretary of Agriculture issued an order banning all snowmobiles, which were originally allowed in as "winterized motorboats."

By and large, the wilderness has been well served by politics and public officials. However, at one point in 1964 the BWCA became the subject of a legislative compromise, and all the troubles of today rise from that compromise. When Congress passed the 1964 Wilderness Act—a tough law stating that any areas designated as wilderness were to be off limits to anything mechanized and to any kind of commerce—a last-minute loophole removed the BWCA from full protection.

It continued to suffer incursions that other designated wildernesses did not, and its status became ambiguous. The current conflict has to do with clarifying that status once and for all. That is what proposed legislation in Congress is attempting to resolve.

Two contending bills have been written, almost exactly opposite in their substance, by two Congressmen from Minnesota. James L. Oberstar, of the congressional district that includes the BWCA, drafted a bill that would transfer 319,000 acres into a National Recreation Area, for multiple use, open to logging and motors. Although the other 700,000 acres would remain a designated wilderness, tranquil and untouched, the huge bite the Oberstar bill would take for motors and logging could open up a wedge for further commercialization, and this is what has enraged environmentalists so much. They prevailed upon an interested Congressman, Donald Fraser of Minneapolis, to draft some opposing legislation—a bill that flatly defined the entire million-plus acres, plus several new tracts, as wilderness, all to be absolutely free of motors, commerce and development. The two bills were submitted to the Interior Committee of the House and wound up in the Subcommittee on National Parks and Insular Affairs.

Upon the introduction of the contending bills, all of the long-standing emotionalism and bitterness between the opposing factions—and philosophies—then broke loose. Preservationists were pitted against developers, motor men against pure canoeists, little-government advocates against big-government supporters, small town against big city, economics against esthetics. There was even a basic class conflict that matched blue-collar motorboat men and snowmobilers with a white-collar elite which seeks an abstraction called "the wilderness experience." About the only factions not in head-on battle over the bills were the two political parties: Oberstar and Fraser are both Democrats.

In the towns located on the edge of the Boundary Waters, residents were aroused over attempts by "outside agitators" to come in and dictate the use of the land. In Ely, the village sometimes called Canoe Town USA, bumper stickers appeared saying SIERRA CLUB KISS MY AXE. At one point a Forest Service building was burned, tires were slashed on vehicles owned by pro-wilderness people and an outfitter who leaned toward the Fraser bill had the display window in his store broken a couple of times. During hearings last summer in Minnesota over the bills, there was much shouting and finger pointing. People claimed that making the BWCA a full wilderness would deplete the local tax base to a critical degree. Resort owners swore they would go bankrupt. Loggers said they would not have enough softwood if they were banned from the BWCA. An organization was formed called the Boundary Waters Conservation Alliance and its slogan Was KEEP THE BWCA OPEN TO EVERYONE.

On the other side, a group was formed called Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Its campaign included a poster with a magnificent photograph of canoe country and two lines of small white type: "The Boundary Waters Wilderness—Take a Long Last Look Before It Vanishes." The group enlisted backing from the national environmental establishment and managed to get 53 members of the House to cosponsor Fraser's full-wilderness bill. Intense lobbying went on. A number of pro-wilderness editorials appeared around the country. The Chicago Tribune said, "Failure to enact the policy of the Fraser bill would subject the BWCA to immediate diminution.... In our increasingly crowded, polluted, noisy and paved world, legislative changes affecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area should defend rather than impair its wilderness status."

In Washington, during two days of hearings in mid-September, a good deal of heat was generated—but there was also some light. The Carter Administration introduced a third proposal for the BWCA that delighted environmentalists by disallowing logging, snowmobiling, and mining in the BWCA, but disappointed them enormously by opening up several new areas to motorboats. The governor of Minnesota, Rudy Perpich, testified. He, too, pleased the pro-wilderness crowd by promising timberland aplenty for loggers outside the BWCA, but he, too, crushed their hopes by insisting that motorboats and snowmobiles be allowed.

The chairman of the subcommittee is Phillip Burton of California, who ranks only a step or two below Speaker Tip O'Neil in terms of making things happen the way he wants them to happen. Despite 10-hour hearings on both days, without so much as a break for lunch. Burton displayed a remarkably calm and well-focused presence. He sat patiently and politely through a number of emotional and basically uninformative harangues from both sides, but he repeatedly fired sharp questions at witnesses.

Whatever bill finally comes out of the subcommittee, it will bear Burton's name—as well as his idea of what it should say. One thing is certain—he has no intention of reclassifying any part of the BWCA as a National Recreation Area; he declared this unequivocably during the September hearings. Thus Congressman Oberstar's plan to take 319,000 acres out of the wilderness and open it to "multiple use," with all its inherent ambiguities and commercial potential, will certainly fall by the wayside. However, there are still some serious questions which must be answered about which sections of the BWCA will be open to motors, and whether there is to be a gradual phasing out of logging or an immediate ban.

There is a sense of urgency about getting a bill out of the subcommittee soon. The self-imposed moratorium on logging had been kept in effect by timber companies since December 1976, but on Sept. 15 it came to an end. Unless legislation is passed in both chambers of Congress the timber companies could begin logging again in parts of the BWCA in early November. The consensus is that the big companies will continue the moratorium voluntarily, but no one is certain what some smaller firms may do.

Ultimately, the question is: Where is the middle ground between Oberstar and Fraser? In August, Oberstar had submitted a new version of his bill that set a limit on the horesepower of allowable motors in the area (10 hp on most small lakes, 25 on the largest) and closed more sections to logging than the earlier bill had. At the same time, Fraser declared that his bill could be altered by adding clauses that would provide federal funds to improve snowmobile routes and to enhance Forest Service management of areas outside the BWCA that might aid softwood logging. He also suggested that funds be made available to buy resorts on lakes bordering the BWCA if owners wish to sell and offered to "give serious attention" to including a 10- to 15-year phaseout of motors on certain peripheral lakes and possibly keeping others open to motors permanently. Obviously, both sides were yielding ground.

At the same time, neither side is willing to speak openly about further compromises. And Burton has been preoccupied with other legislation and has not come up with any way of resolving the impasse. One of Burton's problems is that any pro-wilderness bill must be composed in a way that saves face for Oberstar, a fellow Democrat.

It is possible that some legislation can pass the House this term, that is, before it adjourns for the year on Oct. 27. But as each day passes that possibility becomes dimmer. The Senate, which intends to adjourn on the 15th, would also have to, act, and that, too, appears unlikely. The pro-wilderness forces are more amenable to putting off the issue until 1978 because they feel public opinion is probably on their side and they would be compelled to make fewer compromises as time passes. Also, the snowmobile ban would be in force for still another winter.

Still, if Burton does come up with a version of the bill that satisfies both sides, it would be possible to suspend the rules of the House and get it to the floor for an immediate vote in a very short time. There is pressure on everyone to do something, particularly from canoe and wilderness buffs who regard the BWCA with almost religious veneration. Some kind of victory for the wilderness seems almost a historical imperative, considering what has happened in the past. As Sigurd Olson says, "We have had to win all of the battles we fought over the BWCA. If we hadn't won all of them, there would be no BWCA today."


Purists say that the pristine beauty of the Boundary Waters should be preserved.


Congressional hearings weighed fervid testimony praising and condemning the widely contrasting bills of two rival Minnesota Democrats, Donald Fraser (left) and James Oberstar.


Sigurd Olson, 78-year-old author, wants the wilderness left wild.