Remembering Don Fraser, a Champion of Wilderness


On Sunday,  June 2, Minnesota said good bye to one of it’s truly legendary political heroes, Don Fraser. 

Fraser (1924 – 2019) was a politician with rare moral courage. For those of us who love the wilderness and treasure the BWCAW, Fraser will always be remembered as one of the great champions of the Boundary Waters. Despite the enormous political costs, he was instrumental in bringing full wilderness protection to the Boundary Waters. Doing so cost him votes, it probably cost him the Senate seat. But he put his conscience before his career.

His legacy remains in the quiet sunsets, the clean waters and millions of protected acres we call the BWCAW.

Don Fraser in the Boundary Waters

We were fortunate enough to honor Fraser with the Conservation Award at our 2016 Annual Gathering. Chuck Dayton, one of the founders of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and long-time wilderness advocate, introduced Fraser. 

The following is a transcript of Dayton’s speech.

His personality and values couldn’t be further from another prominent Donald.

Don Fraser was the Congressperson from Minneapolis from 1963 to 1979. He became a leader on civil rights, on anti-Vietnam, on political process and other issues, including our BWCAW.

He was the role model for what we wish congress would be like now. Fair minded, moved by injustice, ready to reach across the aisle, willing to do the right thing, even when it involved political risk. And that’s what happened when we first asked him to support a bill to end logging in the BWCA.  He agreed to do it and delighted in telling us and his fellow members of Congress that he and Arvone [his wife] had taken a canoe trip on  their honeymoon.

Our first shot at trying to get rid of BWCA logging didn’t work.  Don first agreed in 1974 to help with an amendment the Wilderness act that would remove logging from the BWCA. Just logging. Timber harvesting had been allowed as a unique exception when the act had passed in 1964. We thought we had convinced John Blatnic, the long term 8th District congressman, through a meeting with Sig Olsen, to agree to that amendment as his swan song for the wilderness. Blatnic agreed at first but backed off when the timber companies learned of it and pressured him.

As it turned out, it was a good thing for the wilderness that our ill-fated “end run” attempt failed, because it was only concerned with logging, not motorboats, snowmobiles, mining, dams, quotas all of which are in the final bill.

Fraser at the 2018 Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Annual Gathering

Fraser at the 2018 Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Annual Gathering

The next year, after our administrative appeal to the chief of the Forest Service resulted in a snowmobile ban in the BWCA, and let to protest demonstrations in Ely, 8th District congressman Jim Oberstar introduced a compromise bill that carved the BWCAW up into various zones for motorized recreation, logging and wilderness.

We desperately needed our own bill to rally around and we went to Don Fraser and he agreed to sponsor the bill in the house. We knew it would be a tough fight, and controversial. But we didn’t think at all about the potential political consequences for Fraser.  He assigned Rip Rapson, a outstanding young staffer, to work with us, and enlisted the help of Phillip Burton, the chair of the committee that would hear the bill, who turned out later to be a brilliant tactician and also a co-author.

At the same time that our bill was moving, Don, as chair of the House International Affairs committee, spearheaded the investigation of The South Korean leader of the Moonies, Sun Myung Moon, resulting in a furious attack by Moon on Frasers integrity during his campaign for the Senate in 1978 by false claims and a deceitful letter writing campaign. Moon was later convicted of conspiracy and tax fraud.

There was another issue of gun control that hurt Don’s 1978 campaign in the rural areas.  And the abortion issue was another problem.

But the Moonies and guns, and abortion probably didn’t hurt him politically as much as the BWCA issue. I was present as a delegate on the floor of the the Democratic Convention in St Paul, and so were a number other members of the Friends, in June of 1978. Our bill had just passed the House by a good margin. Many busloads of people from up north, who favored motorboats and logging in the BWCAW, packed the galleries of the loudly shouted Don Fraser down when he rose to speak. It was a show that we learned later orchestrated by a trained Alinsky organizer from Chicago, the shouting from the galleries continued until Jim Oberstar, who was opposed to our bill, took the stage and raised his arms for quiet and repeated the famous line attributed to Voltaire, “I wholly disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Oberstar was almost certainly following a planned script. It was a terrible moment in the history of the DFL, and it highlights a dilemma still present today, Statewide Democratic Democratic Politicians need the support of the urban people who place a high value on protecting the natural environment, and also the support of Democrats up north who love nature but have different priorities.

The current mining controversies are no different, but I know that our wilderness cause has a lot more support now north of Highway 2 than it did in 1978, thanks to the efforts of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and others.

Frazer was nominated at the convention but lost the primary in 1978 to Robert Short by about 3,000 votes. There were about 3,000 people in Ely. It was that close and of course I recognized that his willingness to take up our cause resulted in his defeat.  It was one of the worst nights of my life, and certainly it must have been that for him. Characteristic of his gracious nature, he has never said so, but it’s sort of obvious.

Of course, Dave Durenburger was the beneficiary as many democrats voted for him rather than Robert Short. Remember the buttons that said, Don’t sell Minnesota Short?  The happy ending of course is that Don Fraser went back to Minneapolis and served as one of the cities best mayors for 13 years. His many successes In that position are a whole book, and it was there he began his work on early childhood education, a passion which continues to this day.

Clearly, Don Fraser’s willingness to take up the cause of a pure wilderness was a crucial element in the passage of the 1978 BWCAW amendment to the Wilderness Act, and for that we are forever in his debt.

Continue Reading

Canoe Raffle $10 at Minneapolis Cider - graphic with canoe paddlers on BWCA lake
| People

Canoe Raffle

Win a 17' Northstar Seliga canoe and other fabulous Prizes. Tickets at Minneapolis Cider Co. Drawing August 3, 2024.

| People

Opening the Wild

A man who became paralyzed after an accident strives to create a wilderness resort for people with disabilities near the…