Don Fraser – Still Standing Up for Wilderness

by Diane Rose, Wilderness News Contributordonfraser

After 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Minneapolis native Don Fraser was poised in 1978 to move on to the Senate. Politics were taking a conservative turn nationwide, and it promised to be a hard-fought election. The going got even tougher for Fraser after he was asked to sponsor the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness Act – which called for strict limits on motorboats, phased out snowmobiling and prohibited logging and mining in the BWCA.

“Normally, someone would go to the district affected by the legislation but (U.S. Rep. James) Oberstar was not supportive,” Fraser recalls. “I felt that bills of this consequence needed to get in front of the House committees, so I agreed to sponsor it.”

The move stirred up tension between Oberstar and Fraser and substantial opposition from residents of Oberstar’s heavily DFL Eighth Congressional District in northeast Minnesota. However, Fraser said he believes his support for wilderness protection was just one of several reasons for his defeat in the 1978 election.

After three ballots at the DFL convention, Fraser won the party endorsement. He was opposed by northern Minnesota State Rep. Doug Johnson, who was against additional restrictions in the BWCA. Fraser lost the primary election to Bob Short, a DFLer who ran without the party’s endorsement and also opposed the BWCA legislation. Among DFLers, the November 1978 general election came to be known as the “Minnesota Massacre.” Short was defeated by Dave Durenberger, U.S. Sen. Wendell Anderson lost to Rudy Boschwitz and Al Quie unseated Rudy Perpich as governor.

Simultaneously, however, the BWCA Wilderness Act was approved by Congress and signed into law in October 1978 by President Jimmy Carter. Fraser is modest, giving much of the credit for work on the bill to Rip Rapson, who was his staff member at that time. Rapson co-authored the book Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“The only reason the bill got through was that the local people’s influence didn’t reach very far outside the area,” Fraser said. “We had good success mobilizing people in the House. It was a tough fight, but I wasn’t really in the center of it. The chair of a key subcommittee, Phil Burton, was a good friend who was very helpful. And (the late U.S. Rep.) Bruce Vento played a very important role.”

Today, at age 80, Fraser doesn’t regret tackling the wilderness protection measure. What if the BWCA Wilderness Act hadn’t passed? Fraser said fewer people would have experienced the peace and quiet of the wilderness over the years, and the area under protection might be smaller.

Fraser went on from the defeat of 1978 to serve as mayor of Minneapolis from 1980 through 1993. Today, he remains politically active, focusing primarily on early childhood development issues and human rights. “That’s one of the challenges – there are so many things I’d like to follow,” he said. “One of the impressions I do have about the Boundary Waters is that there is stress around the issues of development and the threat of mining.”

The fall of 2003 was the 25th anniversary of the BWCA Wilderness Act, and Fraser marked the occasion by writing an October 19 piece for the Star Tribune. The article pointed out that attempts to undermine the law have been beaten back, yet “…the wilderness remains threatened. More people seek to live near the splendor of the Boundary Waters full or part time. Increased construction of homes and roads places a tremendous burden on the region’s ecosystem. Wildlife is displaced, and runoff from yards, roads and driveways pollutes the otherwise pristine lakes….While the Boundary Waters elicits deep passion, it is my hope that future debates about the area remain calm and civil.”

Calm civility is often in short supply in today’s political debates. Fraser, however, continues to set an example. He speaks gently and eloquently, and smiles often. He doesn’t seem to regret many things in his long political career, or his life.

Get Quetico Superior Wilderness News straight to your inbox

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap