The Changing Nature of Wilderness Protection

Special Feature Part I:

The Changing Nature of Wilderness Protection
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act from 1978 to Today

By Alissa Johnson, Wilderness News Contributor


October marked the 30th anniversary of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. Signed into law on October 21, 1978, its passage sought to bring resolution to years of debate over the best way to use and protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It was a tall order. The inclusion of the BWCA in the 1964 Wilderness Act had sparked a series of disagreements and lawsuits over the Act’s provisions for multiple use, like logging and motor use. The disagreements brought the livelihoods of local communities and outside interests looking to preserve the region’s unique characteristics into conflict; aggressive public demonstrations resulted during the 1970s as President Nixon banned snowmobiles in all wilderness areas, and as the larger multiple-use debate reached the U.S. Congress. The Senate struggled to resolve the issues, and the BWCAW Act of 1978 was the fourth bill set forward during the 1970s. Even then it was passed hours before the end of the legislative session and seen as a compromise by nearly everyone. It was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case and let the Act stand.

The BWCAW Act still stands today, and while there have been flare-ups in the disagreement over its implementation, the debate is less prominent and perhaps unknown to many of the 200,000 people who visit the wilderness each year. On the eve of the Act’s anniversary, Wilderness News set out to assess the state of the Wilderness today. What’s on the minds of residents and activists alike? What are the lingering discussions over the act itself? And where are the conversations over one of the most unique regions in the country headed? Interviewing individuals with a wide range of perspectives in the Twin Cities and Ely, MN, where the 1970s’ controversy settled most heavily, revealed that while land use debates are still taking place, a shift may be occurring in regional conversations.

The 1978 Act, Today

Lingering issues remain over the implementation of the Act, including unresolved motor use quotas and the reroute of the Royal Lake snowmobile trail. The disagreements have wrestled largely with the interpretation of language in the act and the data used to implement its directives.

The 1978 Act directed the Forest Service to establish motor use quotas on par with the established levels of 1976, 1977 or 1978. The Act stipulated that homeowners and resorts located on motorized lakes would retain motorized access on “that particular lake” on which they lived. Disagreement arose when the Forest Service interpreted “that particular lake” as a chain of connected lakes. Advocacy groups challenged this definition in court, and the resulting ruling ordered a recalculation of the quotas restricting “that particular lake” to a single lake. These quotas were then challenged on the grounds that they were based on data that misrepresented actual use during the mid-1970s. A second recalculation was ordered, and new quotas are still being determined.

The reroute of a snowmobile trail that originally cut through Royal Lake in the BWCAW has also attracted attention. The proposed route follows a ridge outside the BWCAW but still visible and within earshot of Royal Lake. It has been challenged on the grounds that it disturbs the wilderness character of the BWCAW, which the USFS has been charged to protect by the Wilderness Act of 1964 and 1978. The trail is still under litigation and remains unresolved.

A Shift In Perspective

A decades old debate between multiple use and preservation lies at the heart of both disagreements, and the outcomes are deeply personal for many – particularly those who are directly affected and the advocacy groups on both sides of the issue. And the decisions do set precedents for future management of the Wilderness. In many respects, however, they represent only a fraction of a larger conversation that is beginning to take shape around the BWCAW – a discussion that, at its heart, is recognizing that the Wilderness does not exist in a vacuum. Where the issues at hand were once dominated by the direct use of the Wilderness itself, the conversation is increasingly cognizant of the fact that activities and issues outside of the Wilderness are invariably connected to its health.

The notion isn’t new. As part of its management practices, the Forest Service routinely assesses the impact of proposed activities outside of the BWCAW for their impact on the Wilderness itself. For example, a proposed timber harvest outside the Wilderness would be assessed for changes to the visual aesthetic, noise pollution, potential runoff and other factors. These assessments are conducted and shared with the public in accordance with the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA), and they play a critical role in protecting the BWCAW’s wilderness character. But determining acceptable impact can be subjective. In some cases, environmental organizations have demanded more stringent protection by using the mandate to protect wilderness character as grounds to challenge Forest Service activities outside of the BWCAW, like timber harvests.

These types of lawsuits have the potential to become hot button issues, championed as effective tools by groups favoring stricter wilderness protection and challenged by others as a political tool inhibiting resource management. But from a broader perspective, they also represent a shift in public awareness that is leading to new questions and concerns. There is no buffer zone around the BWCAW. In a world where external changes increasingly infringe upon BWCAW boundaries, how do we protect its character and still effectively manage state and national resources and create vibrant local communities? Recent mining developments on the Iron Range exemplify this challenge. Discussions include possible mines in the Ely area, on the same watershed as the wilderness. They would create much-needed jobs to stimulate the local economy but raise concerns about pollution control for many.

Beyond Land Use Debates

It is also becoming clear that discussions will not be limited to land use. In a region where the controversy has been tied so closely to a fierce love for the physical land itself, it would be impossible to ignore the impact of larger climate forces on the issues confronting the region today. Some Ely residents have already noticed seasonal changes – Tennessee warblers arriving in May instead of June, crocuses blooming two weeks ahead of schedule, and ice out coming early – and long-term impacts are becoming part of the local discussion. Dr. Lee Frelich, Director of the University of Minnesota Center for Hardwood Ecology, has spoken in Ely several times – to packed auditoriums.

And even as residents and experts work to understand climate change impacts, other natural and manmade events are shaping the region. Some have been high profile, like the 1999 blowdown and the Cavity and Ham Lake Fires, yet others are less obvious to the untrained eye, like invasive species. By all accounts, these forces have brought new challenges to Wilderness management. They have demanded high levels of coordination and cooperation: the Forest Service partnered with state agencies and the Friends of the Boundary Waters to produce a booklet educating the public on identifying and removing invasive species, and the community network activated to monitor and communicate fire risk following the blowdown included a wide range of resorts and businesses in local communities. Managing the wilderness and responding to the evolving challenges takes more than an involved community: it requires a dedicated staff and budget. Just as the BWCAW is not immune to the global climate changes, funding is not immune to the economic and political climate taking shape today.

A New Approach

As the questions facing the management and health of the BWCAW evolve to include resource management in surrounding communities, global climate forces and even national economic forces, the importance of community-wide conversations and solutions becomes more evident. Forest service partnerships and the formation of the Heart of the Continent Partnership, which has formed to create cross-border collaboration across the Ontario/Minnesota border lakes region, provide ongoing efforts to do just that. Yet it also begs the question: when it comes to BWCAW, can we set aside or learn from the differences of the past?



This article appeared in Wilderness News Fall 2008

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