A Plea for Stewardship
People are flocking to the Northshore and to the Boundary Waters in record (or near record) numbers. The clear reason for this is that these are stunning areas that should be on everyone’s bucket list. But the more immediate reason is, that due to COVID-19, travel plans are restricted to where you can get to by car, which means more people from Minnesota and the upper Midwest are finally checking out the national treasures in what Sigurd Olson called “the great silences of land lying northwest of Lake Superior.”
Unfortunately, the increased traffic has brought increased stress to the area. There has been no shortage of troubling reports about trashed campsites, litter on trails, standing trees being cut down and worse. Some of this is because new people are going up north and experiencing the country for the first time and don’t have wilderness training, or experience in wilderness ethics.
But it seems to be more than just some innocent mistakes by those who don’t know any better.
Bryan Hansel, a photographer and resident of Grand Marais wrote in a Facebook post that has been shared over 1,700 times, “This year there has been an abnormally high level of disrespect shown to the land and people who live here. With so much pain, anger and hate out there right now because of this pandemic, everyone needs to find a piece of joy. And if people continue to show a lack of respect, destroy the land here and act terribly, the little piece of joy that can be found here might disappear.”
Hansel hits on an important point, one that is easy to lose sight of. While international mining companies pose an existential threat to the Boundary Waters, there lurks a quieter threat that comes when people misuse the wilderness. When they feel like they don’t need to follow the rules or that their actions don’t have that big of an impact.
At St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (I know, quite a shift of scenery) people have long believed that touching the toe of the statue of St. Peter was good luck. Over time, the statue’s right foot has all but been rubbed off, and is now a smooth cylinder. This is the accumulated impact of tens of thousands of actions that, by themselves, have little to no impact.
If 5 or 10 people went to the Boundary Waters year and left a few scraps of paper behind, the impact would not be so noticeable. But 150,000 people visit the BWCA every year! If people don’t do their part to leave campsites cleaner than they found them, to be fanatic about not littering, no breaking or cutting down trees, setting up camp in a non-designated spot, the impact will be enormous.
Preserving the BWCA is a paradox. On one level, its survival depends on people visiting it and falling in love with the wilderness. At the same time, it is continually under threat of being loved to death. In order to maintain its wilderness character, people need to follow the rules. We need to realize what we do matters, and has an impact.
The Boundary Waters exists because visitors are not merely there for adventure or relaxation, but to be stewards of the land and water.
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