40 Years of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness


Over the course of 2018, you may have noticed that we’ve been talking a lot about the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit the BWCAW and get close to this magnificent wilderness, has been impacted by this piece of legislation.

This act added the final “W” to the BWCA, making it the BWCAW, and a more-fully protected wilderness area.

Commemorating the passage of this bill into law is a chance to remember that the wilderness we love didn’t just happen. It took the efforts of ordinary people to protect and preserve the area and make it into the wilderness we enjoy today.

Imperfect protection

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act.

In the drafting of this bill, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey had been adamant about including the Boundary Waters in the Federal Wilderness System. To do this, Humphrey had to navigate the strong opposition in northern communities. He crafted language that allowed for special exemptions in the Boundary Waters. Where other Wilderness Areas banned all motorized vehicles and had protection from industrial development, some areas of the Boundary Waters would remain open to logging and mining, and well over half of the BWCA was open to motorized vehicles.

It may have been part of the Wilderness Preservation System, but really, it was a Wilderness in name, not management.

You can see how some people would be upset by this. Almost immediately, the tension between those who wanted a true wilderness, protected from developers and motorized travel, and those who want the wilderness available as a resource and opened to a motorized travel, turned into a heated battle.

Lawsuits mounted until it was evident that congress needed to resolve the issue.

Two visions and a compromise

In the political arena, two Minnesotan congressmen (both Democrats) came to represent competing sides of the controversy: Democrat Jim Oberstar of the Eighth District (northeastern Minnesota) and Don Fraser, representing Minneapolis.

Oberstar drafted a bill that divided the BWCA into two “zones.” One zone would have full wilderness protection and another zone would allow for logging and motorized vehicles.

In stark contrast, Fraser introduced a bill that would make the Boundary Waters into a true wilderness area, adding around 35,000 acres to the proposed wilderness.

This set off a series of often contentious public hearings. Compromise bills were presented but went nowhere. Eventually, two attorneys, Chuck Dayton — who represented the environmentalist’s concerns — and Ely attorney Ron Walls sat down to negotiate a compromise.

The proposal they came up with was not popular. Both sides felt as though they had sacrificed too much. Despite reservations, it was this compromise that made its way through the House, passed the Senate and arrived on President Carter’s desk.

The importance of this legacy

To be restored to a true wilderness, the Boundary Waters needed people. This might sound paradoxical, after all, we tend to think of wilderness as a place without any people. But the history of the BWCAW is a history of people working to create a wilderness for future generations.

40 years after the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, it’s easy to take the BWCAW for granted, to think that it was always part of our state, that it was always a protected area.

History could have taken a very different direction.

The creation of BWCAW was mired in controversy. Though much of the disputes surrounding the 1978 bill have died down, tensions still exists between those who advocate for wilderness for its own sake and those who see an economic opportunity in the land.

The wilderness needs friends, it needs people like you to advocate for it.

Though the Boundary Waters has had federal protection for 40 years, it still faces numerous threats. This is why your support is so important.

Thank you for all you do!

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