Remembering Bud Heinselman:
A Wilderness Hero and Founder of the Friends

People By Chuck Dayton

Sunset with a canoe on a lake in the Boundary Waters

Towards the end of 2019, those of us who had been around long enough to remember the effort it took to give the Boundary Waters full, federal wilderness protection, were rather excited. The Ontario Geographic Names Board had made the decision to name a lake in Quetico Provincial Park after Miron “Bud” Heinselman, one of the founders of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and a true hero in the history of the BWCA.

We old-timers well remember the critical, indeed essential, role Bud played in the events that led to the enactment of the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, which expanded the wilderness, banned logging, mining, snowmobiling and severely limited motor use. In short, Bud was a pivotal figure in making the Boundary Waters what it is today.

Bud Heinselman

Bud Heinselman

A forest ecologist by training, Heinselman pioneered a scientific understanding of the role of fire in the boreal forest ecosystem in both the United States and Canada. He had a rare combination of intellectual prowess, matched by an enormous reserve of energy and willingness to take action.

After serving in the Army in World War II, he returned to the University of Minnesota to earn a Bachelor of Science in Forestry, and eventually earned a PhD in the subject. Around the time Bud completed his doctoral degree and went to work for the U.S. Forest Service, there was an active debate over how to manage the Boundary Waters. Back then timber companies cleared acres of forest, motor boats tore through the waters and the area did not have the same level of protection it has today. A passionate and devoted group of people wanted these forests and waterways set aside, free from the intrusion of the modern world. Their numbers were growing and a movement to ban motors, logging and mineral exploration in the BWCA was in full swing.

As part of this movement, Bud was involved with various conservation groups, which created some tensions between him and his employer. At that time, the U.S. Forest Service was committed to promoting logging and supported motor use. It especially pained Bud to see the Forest Service permit commercial logging of the last large intact virgin forests in the BWCA. Bud was the only professional forester to oppose these policies. In response to the mounting conflict, the U.S. Forest Service prohibited Bud from taking a role in conservation issues involving the BWCA, even if he did so on his own time. Nonetheless, Bud continued to voice his support for wilderness and opposition to logging in the BWCA.

Despite his efforts, and the efforts of the groups he worked for, he was unable to stop the Forest Service from giving land out to the timber companies or put an end to motorized travel in the BWCA. Though the bureaucracy might not change its policies, there was a bolder, and more effective way to preserve the wilderness and protect it from the incursions of industry.

Bud and others decided to take the case to the American people.

* * *

People who visit the Boundary Waters are quick to realize that this is a truly unique place. The maze of lakes, portages, and vistas are like nowhere else. Bud knew this, and he knew that protecting this area was a national issue and ought to concern all of the American people.

Bud and a handful of other conservationists decided to take their case to the United States Congress. Their initial goal was to ban commercial logging in BWCA.

They quickly realized that this would take more than one trip to Washington D.C., and more than a few meetings with legislators. Fighting for the Boundary Waters required an extraordinary personal sacrifice and required Bud to resign from his position with the Forest Service. For the better part of four years, from 1974 through 1978, Bud and his wife Fran lived much of the time in Washington, D.C. at their own expense, working to pass the BWCAW Act.

Bud’s friends knew how dedicated and passionate he was about the boreal wilderness. What we did not expect was that this quiet, mild-mannered forester would end up being such an effective advocate. Bud charmed legislators with his boundless knowledge and his single-minded dedication to the cause. Week after week, he trod through the halls of the U.S. Capitol, carrying his tubes stuffed with maps and laying out the case for granting full wilderness protection for the BWCA.

Midway through the efforts, in May 1976, Bud, his wife Fran, myself, and a number of others formed Friends of the Boundary Waters. Naturally, we elected Bud as the Chair of this new organization. For the next four years he held this position — without pay — and led a grassroots effort in a highly politically-charged campaign. Bud forged alliances with Congressmen Don Fraser and Bruce Vento of Minnesota and Phil Burton of California, who was Chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Insular Affairs, and the chief author of the bill. After four years of effort, Congress passed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, which President Carter signed into law on the twenty-first of October, 1978.

Bud is one of our greatest and least recognized heroes. A giant figure in the battle for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, he was also the founder of modern fire ecology in North America, and his research into the role of fire in the boreal forests still form the foundation wilderness fire management in both the United States and Canada. It’s hard to imagine it, but there are many scenarios in which history would have turned out differently. It is safe to say that without Bud’s dedication, and the dedication he inspired in others, we would not have the Wilderness we enjoy today.

Chuck Dayton is a retired environmental lawyer who spent much of his life working to save the natural areas he loves. He and spouse Sara Evans live most of each summer near Ely, Minnesota and spend spring and fall in the western Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. In these beautiful places, photography has become his passion and spiritual practice. Through it, he seeks to follow Mary Oliver’s advice: “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”

From The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem by Miron Heinselman.  Published by the University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Pp.268-269

Heinselman refers to Sigurd Olson’s vision of the “singing wilderness”:

“Of course, Sig did not literally mean music but the sounds and images that come back to us again and again, even when we are far from this remarkable remnant of the Boundary Waters and the old north woods.  It is the restiveness in the calls of chickadees, ravens, and gray jays as a March thaw thins the great white snow blanket that has covered their northern home since November.  It is the first tiny flowers of the trailing arbutus among the last snow patches of a northern spring.  It is the mysterious drumming of a male ruffed grouse coming from the lime greenery of a patch of young aspens on a warm May morning.  It is the calling of loons echoing among the islands and bays of a wilderness lake on a moonlit summer night.  It is a glimpse of a dark boreal forest of jack pine and black spruce marching out to the edge of a high granite ridge.  It is the gray mystery of ancient white pines, mingled with the towering salmon-pink columns of giant red pines, still guarding the portages and campsites used long ago by native peoples.  It is the soft carpet of feather mosses beneath a jack pine-black spruce forest, and great cushions of sphagnum mosses in a spruce bog.  It is the starkness of fire-killed snags contrasting with the pink of freshly exposed granite and the bright new greenery of millions of tiny jack pine, black spruce, and aspen seedlings on a vast northern burn.  It is the incredible pale blue depths of Argo, Clearwater, Mountain, and many other trout lakes best left unnamed.  It is the dark green of spruce, balsam, and pine, contrasting with the golds of aspen, birch, and tamarack, the reds of maples, and the deep blue of sky and water on a brisk September day.  It is the lonesome howl of timber wolves on a far-off ridge.  It is the lusty bellow of a bull moose on a late September morning.  It is the distant calling of geese, riding the chill and snow squalls of a biting north wind on an October day.  It is the rending and cracking of newly formed lake ice on November’s first subzero night.  It is the overpowering silence and whiteness of a great winter-bound northern lake, surrounded by endless dark spruce and pine ridges, every tree festooned with dazzling snow pillows, framed against the deep blue of a thirty-below-zero January sky.

“I have heard this “wilderness music” in the Boundary Waters.  Voices in this land call us back until our last breath is drawn.  Once you have heard the music of the Boundary Waters you will yearn for it until you can yearn no more!”

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