Last spring, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness welcomed new director Paul Danicic (pictured at left with son Asher). Paul recently shared his thoughts on the state of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the Friends’ role in protecting and maintaining it with Wilderness News contributor Alissa Johnson. Originally published in part in the Summer 2009 issue of Wilderness News, read the full interview here.
WN: Can you refresh Wilderness News readers on the mission and history of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness?
The mission of the Friends is to protect, preserve and restore the wilderness character of the BWCAW and the Quetico-Superior ecosystem. We were founded in 1976 specifically to pass legislation that would protect the area as wilderness for the value of wilderness. That legislation passed. Since then the organization has worked to protect, preserve and restore through advocacy and education. Over the years, the Friends have worked to prevent increased motor use, destructive logging practices on the border of the wilderness, increased road building in roadless areas, increased air pollution and habitat destruction for local wildlife. The Friends also takes a long term view on building the next generation of wilderness stewards so is also active in education activities and collaboration with the Forest Service to create volunteers to help rangers and combat non-native invasive species, sponsor programs that raise awareness of the value of wilderness, create wilderness curriculum for young students and immerse inner city youth in the wilderness through high quality, conservation oriented canoe trips.
WN: Are you bringing a personal vision to the Friends, and has this become an opportunity to bring new voice, focus or energy to the organization?
My personal vision is the same as the organization’s – to preserve the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters for the benefit of future generations. As YMCA Camp Menogyn director for nearly a decade I know the value of the wilderness, its profound ability to impact us, sooth our souls and help us grow fully. Of course I will bring my own voice to the role but the Friends is much bigger than one person. The four of us, Betsy, Greg, Sacha and myself, work on behalf of our members who expect us to be vigilant and relentless in our advocacy without losing the ability to collaborate and to create trust and respect with other organizations and decision makers. And to look forward to the next generation of wilderness conservation leaders.
WN: What do the Friends consider the top three concerns facing the health of the Boundary Waters today?
Copper/nickel mining should be on everyone’s radar as a most serious threat to the BWCAW and the Quetico-Superior ecosystem as we know it. Just Google “Acid Mine Drainage” if you don’t believe me. This industry has yet to prove it can operate a mine without creating water pollution. And there are 32 exploratory permits for these types of mines running up to within a mile of our wilderness in the Kawishiwi. Bald Eagle and Isabella Lake areas. Mines in this watershed would most likely create disastrous pollution and even exploratory projects would impact the wilderness character.
The spread of roads and destructive practices like unregulated OHV and ATV use. You may be surprised if you look at a map of the forest and how many roads are already there. We are working to make sure that the impact of any projects on wilderness character of the BWCA gets properly addressed.
The spread into the Superior National Forest of non-native invasive species is a large one. Unlike many other national forests and wilderness areas, we are ahead of the game here though we are starting to see some of these species. We have a real opportunity to work with the Forest Service and other groups to keep the BWCA free of these destructive species. This ties into climate change as well – which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish!
WN: Do the Friends have any concerns that the Boundary Waters is in danger of being overused?
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the most visited area in the National Wilderness Preservation System with about 250,000 visitors each year. The current permit quotas were designed for use patterns that are relatively old and outdated and over time, use has changed. For example, the average length of stay is down significantly. People are basecamping more and not travelling into the interior so entry area lakes are experiencing overcrowding. Fortunately, people willing to paddle and portage are still able to experience solitude and adventure in an “untrammelled” landscape. I don’t have the solution, but this is one of the things we are able to work closely with the Forest Service on. We want to allow people to love the land, preserve a healthy Quetico-Superior ecosystem and protect the true wilderness experience for future generations.
WN: The Friends sometimes have a reputation for relying on lawsuits and legislative action as an advocacy tool. Would you like to speak to this?
We spend much more day to day time on collaborative efforts such as science-based advocacy, volunteer programs that support wilderness, the Heart of the Continent Partnership and regular constructive meetings with Forest Service leaders, MPCA and other agencies. In those interactions we have candid, informal conversations in which we speak for wilderness character and folks who use and love it. These are great forums to work on management issues and be a respected player at the table. Hopefully, this work has prevented legal action without compromising the highest level of wilderness protection for the area. The Friends will use any tool to protect and preserve the wilderness character of the BWCAW and a legal action is only one of those tools. A suit is the last course of action we would choose to take. There would have likely been lots of work done beforehand.
Though we are the only advocacy organization solely focused on the BWCAW, we are part of a bigger conservation effort that includes many groups. Our goal is to seek a collaborative approach wherever we can.
WN: The Friends grew out of a very controversial time in the creation and management of the Boundary Waters. Has the nature of that debate changed over time, or do you foresee it changing in the future?
Yes it has, the Friends was created in effect to change something – to create legal protection of a landscape so many hold dear. Now in a way we are working to keep something the same and it takes more than just maintenance. I want the same BWCAW, meaning solitude and stunning silence, “an area where earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man…”, to be there for my two sons and future generations. And I want future generations to know, I mean really know in the sense of the German Kenntnisse, not only from a website or blog, the value of the canoe country wilderness. One of the things I say to people is that the BWCAW is protected but not safe. It is like a kid in a child safety seat in a car going really fast. I lived on the Gunflint for nine seasons and thought I was clued up about the issues affecting the wilderness. But since joining the Friends I know far more about the very real potential for our beloved canoe country to diminish in quality and stature. Jane Jacobs said, “We don’t lose precious things in big bites, we lose them in little nibbles.” And that is exactly what we have going on here.
I do see the debate changing some, more people are becoming aware of the sustainable nature of wilderness as an economic factor. People are retiring to the area for the clean air and water. The SNF presence brings in $300 million annually (by their own account) to the area and about $223 million of that comes from recreation and wilderness use. They are really in the recreation business. Extractive business like timber and mining has diminished, no matter what those industries try to tell us. Mining is really almost all mechanized so we have to substantially downgrade any job numbers they tout as well. But as demographics change, new populations need to be welcomed into the concept of the value of wilderness so they vote to protect it in the future. Resentment and bad feelings about conservation remain locally, even in a generation that wasn’t born when the BWCAW was created. The work is still there indeed and I think on some of these issues we could find common ground.
So if I were to do those nine years over with all the work I did with young people, I would have spent much more time showing them what it means to be a conservationist, staying aware and involved, we are now doing just that with our interns and education programs in our work here at the Friends. I would love for all the many people who love the boundary waters, whether they visit there or not, to consider joining the Friends. We are honored to work on their behalf and together, “We can afford to cherish and protect it.” (People wouldn’t respect me if I didn’t quote Sig!)