The Changing Nature of Wilderness Protection: Looking Forward

Special Feature Part II

By Alissa Johnson

In part I of The Changing Nature of Wilderness Protection, Wilderness News uncovered a transformation in the challenges facing the BWCAW. Where issues like motor use once topped the list, they are now giving way to increasingly complex challenges that defy man-made boundaries. Meeting these demands may mean letting go of the emotional divides of the past and looking forward as a community; in Part II, we explore the nature of today’s conversations and what they mean for future community discourse.

Where a highly publicized conversation surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness once dominated the region, a shift has occurred in the thirty years since the passage of the BWCAW Act of 1978. The polarizing debate over the Act and its implementation has taken a less prominent role; in fact, when it comes to the Boundary Waters, no single issue seems to dominate the conversation. The BWCAW has become part of the backdrop against which Ely and local communities create a life. Emotions linger, but in a town that, in the words of nearly everyone, demands a hard-scrabble life motor use and other hot-button issues are not always the stuff of daily life. Wilderness and multiple-use groups once involved in the implementation of the Act are still keeping a watchful eye out for each other, but most people are simply living. In the small reprieve this has afforded, a few things become clear: a gentle softening of hardened attitudes is detectable, and the inclusion of new voices into the discussion could open the door to a new way of meeting future challenges. While lingering emotions still hinder the creation of a public conversation, the complexities of today’s issues may demand that these seeds of change be allowed to grow.

A Subtle Shift in Mind Set

The tumultuous debate over the BWCAW has often led multiple-use and pro-wilderness interests to draw on oft-cited examples of negative behavior to paint each other in a dim light, the burning of Sigurd Olson in effigy chief among them. Though such accusations grew out of real action, their continual invoking has only reinforced unfortunate stereotypes of corrupt politicians and uneducated northerners. The resulting emotional rift cannot be underestimated. But where fevered legal battles once made it virtually impossible for either side to concede shared values, away from the bitter fight, individuals from both camps will quietly express a more open attitude.

“It is a good thing to have the BWCAW. I’m glad we have it. I just don’t like the cheating way it was acquired.” Such an admission from Dee Whitten was once unimaginable: “Ten years ago, I probably would have answered differently.” As the former head of the multiple-use group Conservationists with Common Sense, she led the fight during the 1990s to keep truck portages open in the BWCAW. Their ultimate closure “just about tore my heart out,” she admits. The emotion of the legal fight and the resulting loss left her so raw that she expressed great reluctance to even speak about the 30th anniversary of the 1978 Act. For Whitten and CWCS, efforts to close the truck portages felt like one more political ploy to take the region away from locals one piece at a time. Listening to her talk it was evident that recognizing the value of the BWCAW during the fight would have felt like yielding too much ground; the debate was so heated there was little room to acknowledge that both sides were acting out of passion for the region.

“We all love the Boundary Waters as much as anyone,” said Nancy McReady, Ely resident and current head of CWCS. As she reminisced over a cup of coffee in local Ely haunt Vertin’s, her eyes took on the same glow that alights canoeists’ after a paddling trip. She fondly described the rejuvenating effect of family fishing trips on her husband, who worked long hours and spent much of the workweek away from home to make ends meet. There is one marked difference between McReady and canoeists, of course: she and her family fish by motorboat. For McReady, suggestions that the BWCAW cannot be a true wilderness until every last motor is out sound like direct threats to her way of life—one that encompasses the beauty and peace of the BWCAW—and one more way to undermine the tentative peace that has been struck over use of the Wilderness.

Indeed, some wilderness supporters, including the Friends of the Boundary Waters, would like to see the 1978 Act strengthened, actively promoting a bigger, completely motor-free BWCAW. Concerned that the Wilderness represents one of the last vestiges of true nature in a unique region, they see no room for multiple use when the noise and pollution of motors and snowmobiles join potential mining, slant drilling and air born pollutants in threatening the health and vitality of its wilderness character. Kevin Prescholdt, author of Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, believes that in light of such threats, the job of protecting the wilderness will never be done: “We can, over time, move toward a better protected wilderness, but even Sig [Olson] said the ‘78 Act didn’t get the job done.”

Yet in the three decades since the Act’s passage, the desire for a long and bitter fight may be waning. For some, it may become possible to focus less on the shortcomings of the bill and more on its accomplishments. Becky Rom, an attorney involved with the Friends and daughter of the late Ely outfitter Bill Rom, believes that setting the controversy aside, the 1978 Act accomplished a lot: much of the argument prior to its passage was over vagueness, and the Act created a clear set of management rules. Acknowledging that no law is perfect – the give and take in the legal process rarely leaves any interest group completely happy – she suggests: “Given what we have for a legal framework, let’s make it the best wilderness we can.” She is also being realistic, based on the attitudes she sees among wilderness supporters and the leadership in Congress. “The appetite for the bitter fight is going down. People are mellowing out, at least in my generation. I’m optimistic we can start constructive talking over the next ten years.”

The need for talking is clear, but cautious optimism is also tempered by hesitation. McReady acknowledged, “More talking would be good, but it’s hard when there’s so little trust.” The fear and mistrust have wider implications as well, implications that go beyond the ability of two adversarial groups to find healing. It also creates a general reluctance for the rest of the community – members who do not fall into such clearly defined groups – to join in the conversation. Behind closed doors, individuals and families expressed frank observations and eloquent ideas about the interconnectedness of the Ely community and the Wilderness and summer tourism, but most spoke on the condition of anonymity. Given the region’s tumultuous history, one cannot begrudge their hesitation to shake things up. Yet their words broaden the picture, illuminating the reality that we are all connected in one way or another, local resident and summer tourist alike.

Broadening Perspectives

To the average summer visitor, Ely is a gateway to the Boundary Waters. Though many stop in to say hello to their favorite outfitter, drop by for a piece of pie at the Chocolate Moose or stroll up Sheridan Street, few truly get to meet the community that calls Ely home. It is eclectic, made up of families with roots in the town’s mining and timber history and newer families who have arrived over the last few decades. For some, living next to canoe country means the delight of paddling out the front door to take the kids on a canoe trip. For others, the establishment of the Wilderness meant the emotional removal of the family resort log by log or dismantling the family business – some rebuilt and continued to prosper, others did not.
One thing most families agree on is the inherent challenge in making a living in Ely. Nearly every family interviewed for this story mentioned this reality. And looking at the town’s history, it is easy to see why. The mining era came to a close as the Wilderness gained traction. The burgeoning resort industry, which thrived off of fly-in resorts and tourism, was curtailed, and the 1978 Act also impacted the timber harvesting industry. Though it included provisions for logging outside of the Wilderness, there is much disagreement over how well this was realized. In short, the town’s ability to support itself was completely transformed by forces out of its control.

Eric Mayranen knows this story well, for he has lived it. He moved to Ely during the 1970s, called by the allure of a career as a bush pilot. When airplanes were banned in 1976, he turned to logging. When that was impacted by the 1978 Act, he found himself facing unemployment for nearly three years. Finding only seasonal employment, he was close to leaving Ely for work when he finally established a career in logging and now mining. His livelihood has routinely been impacted by changing laws as well as shifts in the public’s emotional tide for or against these industries. His experience is familiar to many; a local development study even recognized changing rules as one of the barriers to establishing steady economic development in the area.

The health of the community is still impacted by the Wilderness and tourism, and it would be a mistake to think that canoeing tourism was a boon for everyone. Many do not see profits from the annual stream of tourists and instead find their lives impacted in more subtle and pervasive ways. Several families cited fears that rising land values price out local families and the small “mom and pop” resorts, prohibiting them from owning or keeping family land as taxes rise. Others still shared concerns that the community loses homestead taxes as land is instead bought up by out-of-towners because of property tax reform enacted by Governor Jesse Ventura. While more private cabins can improve local industries like lumber and development, less money in the tax base directly impacts things like the education budget. It is an inherently complex web of connections that ties the health of the local community to tourism and the Wilderness.

Some wilderness proponents question the determination of people like Mayranen to stay in Ely. Yet what unites him with other local families is a love for the land and a commitment to a vibrant local community. Traditional definitions of wilderness have not left room for this type of human presence, promoting the preservation of land for its intrinsic value and limiting human activity. But this notion that wilderness can exist separately from civilization may miss the point. Acknowledging the inherent ties between the BWCAW and the health of surrounding communities like Ely might even be a crucial component in finding solutions to today’s challenges.

A New Level of Intricacy

Whether an individual is a member of CWCS or the Friends of the Boundary Waters, an Ely resident or a Minneapolis tourist, there are inescapable truths when it comes to the BWCAW. Visitors who drive to Ely to paddle the wilderness or buy a cabin at its edge impact the local economy for better and worse. When local communities welcome a potential mine because it will provide much needed jobs, they ask for something that will boost the economy but might impact the environment even with new safety regulations. This has always been true. But challenges faced today hold consequences for the Wilderness and the community on a level never before seen; if climate change and invasive species alter the composition of the forest as some predict, the feel of the BWCAW and the health of the timber industry will both be impacted. While it might not be possible to find widespread agreement on individual issues (mines, motor use, treatment of invasive species, the causes and impacts of climate change), there may be room for common ground in our ability to recognize the importance of a healthy forest.

The emotional history and deep seeded feelings cannot but trivialized, but perhaps the time has come to embrace our commonly held values – namely, a love for the region – and start working toward the recognition that each individual has a unique wisdom afforded by their experience. Mayranen has elegant ideas about establishing healthy and sustainable logging in the communities surrounding the Wilderness. McReady and Prescholdt both express a reverence for the region’s natural beauty that is echoed by many, even though their methods of enjoyment differ. Rom has knowledge of the legal framework. Bringing the wilderness advocate, the policy maker, the life-long logger, the multiple-use proponent, the educators, and the wilderness outfitters to the table along with Wilderness managers would seem like a good way to ensure that all voices are heard and simultaneously address the intricacies of today’s challenges. Perhaps it could even help
create community healing.

Why wait for the next big debate to create a platform for conversation?

Let us set the stage for constructive conversation through the simple communication channels that already exist: public Forest Service meetings where management decisions and environmental impact statements are shared; supporting the efforts of the Heart of the Continent Partnership to reach across borders; or simply making an effort to understand the motivations and inspirations that drive someone to enjoy the wilderness in a way that might be different from our own. Let us set down our tired, worn out stereotypes and really get to know each other.

This article appeared in Wilderness News Spring 2009

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