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Boundary Waters

By Stephen Wilbers


This chronology is presented in four versions so that you may choose according to your interests. The long version contains all entries, the short version is a knock-down version of the long one, and the wilderness management and natural history versions contain entries specific to those topics.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a 1.1 million acre wilderness located in northeastern Minnesota. I hope you enjoy browsing through this history as much as I have enjoyed compiling it.

Long          Short          Wilderness Management          Natural History

Please send comments, information, and corrections to me at wilbe004@umn.edu. Thanks. Stephen Wilbers

Three photographs by Craig Blacklock          Principal Sources




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Boundary Waters Chronology:
Wilderness Management

12,000-8,000 years ago:
The first humans migrate into the boundary waters region, including the Clovis people of the Paleoindian Tradition, also called the Big Game Hunters. They hunt woolly mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, muskoxen, camels, horses, giant beavers, giant bison, saber-tooth tigers, and other megafauna or large Ice Age mammals.

Around 11,000 years ago:
Hunting pressure and a warming climate lead to the extinction of many large Ice Age mammals.

During "the Voyageurs era," fur traders canoe the lakes and portage routes of the boundary waters region transporting furs for French and British fur companies.

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris at the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, the British surrender control over lands west of the Appalachian mountains, and the United States gains sovereignty over the southern Great Lakes region.

Felt hats made from beaver fur go out of style in Europe and are replaced by silk hats, ending a fashion that lasted 300 years. By this time, the beaver population in the boundary waters region is decimated. It doesn't fully recover for 150 years.

The present international boundary through canoe country is established by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, signed by the United States and Great Britain.

Seven chiefs of the Chippewa Indian Peace Commission travel to Washington, D.C., to sign the Treaty of LaPointe, ceding the entire Arrowhead region to the United States government and opening it to exploration and development by white settlers. In return, small reservations for the Ojibwe of Lake Superior are created at Grand Portage, Fond du Lac, and Nett Lake, and they are promised monetary payments for 20 years, annual food supplies, 80 acres of land to each head of family, fishnets, guns and ammunition, agricultural teachers, and a blacksmith for each reservation.

Red and white pine are logged in the boundary waters area during "the big-pine logging era," with the first significant logging occurring in the Trout Lake area north of Lake Vermilion. Red pine is taken principally for timbers used in mining, and white pine principally for lumber.


June 30, 500,000 acres of public domain in Lake and Cook Counties in northeastern Minnesota, much of which is now part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, are set aside from logging, mining, and homesteading by Minnesota's Forestry Commissioner Christopher Andrews.

At the request of the Minnesota Forestry Board, Congress grants 20,000 acres to the State for the Burntside Forest Reserve. As stated in the 1905 Minnesota Forestry Commissioners Report, "State Forest Reserves should be devoted not alone to the business of raising timber, but to the pleasure of all the people."

With financing from Edward Wellington Backus, the dam at Koochiching, now International Falls, is completed to provide waterpower for Backus's Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company. The dam is planned as the first in a series of dams that would affect parts of present-day Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park, Quetico Provincial Park, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Spring, the Quetico Provincial Forest Reserve is created by the government of Ontario, setting aside one million acres as a forest and game preserve. Weeks later the Superior National Forest is created as a reciprocal act when President Theodore Roosevelt signs Proclamation 848, setting aside one million acres on the U.S. side of the border.

Major fires are suppressed in the boundary waters area during "the fire-suppression period," resulting in unintended consequences. Fire suppression interferes with the natural cycle of fires that create new stands of forests, curtails periodic elimination of the tree-killing spruce budworm, and causes a buildup of dead trees in forest understories. These unnaturally high fuel loads increase the likelihood of super hot fires that scorch the thin topsoil of the boundary waters area, killing organic matter and the seeds of trees such as jack pine, black spruce, and red pine, which normally reestablish themselves rapidly after fires.

Quetico Provincial Park is established from the forest and game reserve created in 1909. Canada's provincial parks are closed to hunting.

A recreation plan for the boundary waters area is developed by the U.S. Forest Service in response to increasing numbers of people seeking recreation.

A plan for preserving the border lakes region as a canoeing area is proposed by Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect hired by the U.S. Forest Service. Though the plan is not implemented, it is the country's first proposal for managing and protecting a wilderness area. It calls for a fully protected core area and limited, controlled development in outer areas.

April 23, at the first of many conferences to resolve differences regarding management of the Superior National Forest, Will Dilg, first president and founder of the Izaak Walton League of America, makes an impassioned plea opposing a U.S. Forest Service plan to bisect the core of the "roadless area" with a road linking Ely and the Gunflint Trail. The county governments and local chambers of commerce advocate development, adopting as their slogan "A Road to Every Lake." The Superior National Forest Recreation Association is organized with Paul Riis as its president to oppose construction of roads in the "roadless areas" of the Superior National Forest.

Lumber baron and industrialist Edward Wellington Backus proposes building a series of seven dams along the boundary waters lakes to create four main water storage areas to provide hydroelectric power for his papermills. The dams would affect the 14,500-square-mile Rainy Lake watershed by significantly raising water levels above natural levels (Little Vermilion Lake by 80 feet, Loon Lake by 33 feet, Lac La Croix by 16 feet, and Saganaga and Crooked lakes by 15 feet). Conservationist and explorer Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer with support from attorneys Sewell Tyng, Frank Hubachek, Charles Kelly, Frederick Winston, and many other conservationists wage a five-year battle to defeat the plan.

September 17, the Little Indian Sioux, the Caribou, and the Superior "roadless areas" of the Superior National Forest are designated as a 640,000-acre roadless wilderness area under a policy issued by the U.S. Forest Service under U.S. Agricultural Secretary William Jardine to "retain as much as possible of the land which has recreational opportunities of this nature as a wilderness," curbing an ambitious road plan to push "a road to every lake." The policy allows construction of the Ely-Buyck road (now the Echo Trail), the Ely to Fernberg road, and the extension of the Gunflint Trail to Sea Gull Lake, but prohibits a connection from Fernberg northeast to Gunflint and spurs from the Ely-Buyck northwest to Lac La Croix and to Trout Lake, roads that would have further segmented the present Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

January 27, the Quetico-Superior Council holds its first meeting, with Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer as its president, for the purpose of promoting an International Peace Memorial Forest on both sides of the border, encompassing the entire Quetico-Superior region.

July 10, 1930, the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, the first statute in which Congress expressly orders land be protected as "wilderness," is signed into law by President Herbert Hoover at the urging of a group of conservationists led by Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer. The Act withdraws all federal land in the boundary waters region from homesteading or sale, prevents the alteration of natural water levels by dams, prohibits logging within 400 feet of shorelines, and preserves the wilderness nature of shorelines. The regulations apply to a 4,000-square-mile area extending from Lake Superior on the east to Rainy Lake on the west. Passage of the Act represents a defeat for Edward Wellington Backus's plan to build a series of dams in the Rainy Lake watershed to create storage basins for industrial waterpower.

The General Logging Company ceases its railroad logging operations around Brule and Gunflint lakes, bringing to an end the railroad logging era in the boundary waters area.

April 19, despite vigorous opposition by Minnesota Power and Light, legislation applying the protections of the Shipstead-Nolan Act to state lands is passed by the Minnesota Legislature. The bill is titled "An Act To Protect Certain Public Lands and Waters Adjacent Thereto Owned by the State of Minnesota."

The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), one of the first acts signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on taking office, creates work camps directed by the U.S. Forest Service in the boundary waters area to put people back to work. In the fall of 1933 two permanent camps are built at Lake Three and Alice Lake. During the brutal winter that follows, several workers become ill, and the foreman dies at the Lake Three camp, apparently the result of sewage seeping into the water supply. The program ends a short time later, and workers are transferred to the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enlists thousands of unemployed men to plant trees, rebuild and improve portages, build canoe rests, install landing docks, post direction signs, build four lookout towers, fight forest fires, and do other conservation projects in the boundary waters area. Fourteen major camps, each housing approximately 200 young men and dozens of highly skilled outdoorsmen, are constructed in and around the wilderness areas of the Superior National Forest. The docks, signs, and rests are later removed to comply with the 1964 Wilderness Act, but still evident today are the raised walkways, the rocks placed to reinforce trails, the canoe landings (now mostly submerged), and other signs of trail improvements.

June 30, the President's five-member Quetico-Superior Committee is established by executive order by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer as its chair. The other members are Charles Kelly, Robert Marshall, Sigurd Olson, and Sewell Tyng. The Committee's purpose is to consult with and advise the State of Minnesota and the several federal departments and agencies operating in the Superior National Forest area.

October 29, Edward Wellington Backus, lumberman and industrialist, dies of a heart attack in his hotel room in New York City, ending a nine-year struggle with Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer and other conservationists for control of the Quetico-Superior region.

Superior National Forest's three wilderness areas are renamed the Superior Roadless Primitive Areas under a plan formulated with the help of Robert Marshall, then in charge of recreation in the Washington office of the U.S. Forest Service. The designation protects the areas from development but allows timber cutting and motorboats.

Improved and less costly outboard motors, including small, easily portaged models that are usable on canoes, are now available.

The Izaak Walton League of America establishes a fund to purchase private lands and resorts in the boundary waters area to be turned over to the government. From 1945 to 1965, the League purchases nearly 7,000 acres.

Nearly 20 resorts serviced by pontoon-equipped planes are operating on Basswood, Crooked, Knife, La Croix, Saganaga, and Seagull lakes. Some offer amenities such as bars, slot machines, and motorboats, with Ely now serving as the largest inland seaplane base in North America.

The Thye-Blatnick Act, Public Law 733, is passed by Congress, directing the Secretary of Agriculture to acquire resorts, cabins, and private lands within the boundary waters area and prohibiting any permanent residents after 1974. The Act provides for in-lieu-of-tax payments to Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Counties for federal wilderness land. It is extended and funded with an additional $2 million for acquisition of private property in 1956 and an additional $2 million in 1961. The amendments are denounced by the commissioners of Cook, Lake, and St. Louis counties and by the Ely Chamber of Commerce as "another ruthless inroad on the economy of affected counties."

Railroad tracks are laid to Lake Isabella and construction begins on Forest Center, a logging town carved out of the southern edge of the roadless area, in preparation for logging by the Tomahawk Kraft Timber Company. A large turnaround and sawmill are built by the lake, and eventually more than 50 homes as well as a church, restaurant, school, store, and recreation hall are built, along with five smaller camps in the area. Logging by Tomahawk ends in 1964, when loggers reach a buffer zone created by the Shipstead-Nolan Act. By 1965 the town is gone, though the alteration in the southern boundary of the present Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness remains.

March 27, the Ely Rod and Gun Club reconfirms its support for an airspace reservation over the boundary waters at a meeting in which Forest Ranger Bill Trygg faces down angry opponents. Later that night a homemade bomb explodes outside the house of Bill Rom, an outfitter who supports the ban, but it causes little damage.

April, Friends of the Wilderness is founded by William "Bill" Magie, Frank Robertson, and other conservationists, to represent organizations supporting a ban on airplanes over the boundary waters area.

December 17, Executive Order 10092 is signed by President Truman creating an "airspace reservation" that bans private flights below the altitude of 4,000 feet above sea level, in part as a result of the work of activists Sigurd Olson, Charles Kelly, Frank Hubachek, William "Bill" Magie, and others.

Around 1950:
Truck portages into Basswood Lake, Lac La Croix, and Big Trout Lake are established, providing easy access to these lakes and their connecting waters by large, high-speed motorboats.

 Aluminum canoes and boats are now widely available, making travel easier and resulting in dramatic increases in the number of canoeists accessing remote lakes.

Early 1960s-early 1990s:
Despite regulations designed to control both the amount and type of recreational activities in the Boundary Waters, visitor use increases nearly threefold.

The U.S. Forest Service prohibits the storage of boats on national lands within the BWCA, a common practice by Cook County and Lake County resorts.

May, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, a former Minnesota governor, appoints George Selke to head a special Boundary Waters Canoe Area Review Committee to recommend changes in BWCA management.

September 3, the Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 88-577, is signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, establishing the U.S. wilderness preservation system and prohibiting the use of motorboats and snowmobiles within wilderness areas except for areas where use is well established within the Boundary Waters, defining wilderness as an area "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . . an area of undeveloped . . . land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements." This date is considered by many to be the birth of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Many of the Selke Committee's recommendations for restrictions on visitor permits, motor use, and logging are implemented by Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman in a new management plan for the Boundary Waters. One recommendation is that permits be required for entrance. In addition, the plan divides the BWCA into an Interior Zone of 600,000 acres, which is closed to logging, and a Portal Zone of 400,000 acres, which is open to logging. The plan also calls for the immediate addition of 150,000 acres to the no-cut zone, with another 100,000 acres to be added by 1975 as existing logging contracts are completed. This would bring the total no-cut area to 612,000 acres by 1975.

A mandatory permit system for visitors (with no fee) is instituted by the U.S. Forest Service following the Selke committee hearings, the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the Freeman Directive of 1965.

June 21, the Superior National Forest Advisory Committee is formed to advise the U.S. Forest Supervisor on policies, programs, and management of the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The gray wolf in the lower 48 states is listed as "endangered" under the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act.

A maximum group size limit of 15 persons for visitors is instituted by the U.S. Forest Service.

Voyageurs National Park is established by Public Law 91-661, as amended by Public Law 97-405, enacted by Congress on January 8 and signed by President Richard Nixon, to "preserve, for the inspiration and enjoyment of present and future generations, the outstanding scenery, geological conditions, and waterway system which constituted a part of the historic route of the Voyageurs who contributed significantly to the opening of the Northwestern United States." The park is officially established under these laws by the Secretary of the Interior on April 8, 1975.

A rule limiting visitors to "designated campsites" on heavy-use routes is instituted by the U.S. Forest Service. Cans and glass bottles are prohibited from the Boundary Waters. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the measure is expected to reduce refuse by 360,000 pounds, saving $90,000 per year on cleanup.

A limited moose hunt is authorized for the first time since 1922.

Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, a student group at the University of Minnesota, files a lawsuit to prohibit logging of old growth forest in the BWCAW until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Endangered Species Act is passed by Congress, declaring timber wolves an endangered species and affording federal protection. Since 1965, when the last bounty was paid on a wolf in Minnesota, approximately 200 animals were killed annually.

Quetico Provincial Park is given full wilderness protection. All logging is permanently banned, snowmobiles are banned, and a motorboat phaseout is begun.

The rule limiting visitors to "designated campsites" that was instituted by the U.S. Forest Service on heavy-use routes in 1966 is extended to the entire Boundary Waters.

The maximum group size limit for visitors is lowered from 15 to 10 persons by the U.S. Forest Service.

Logging of old growth forests is banned in a ruling by Federal District Judge Miles Lord. The ruling is reversed on appeal in 1976.

October, Eighth District Representative James Oberstar (D-MN) introduces a bill that if passed would have established a Boundary Waters Wilderness Area of 625,000 acres and a Boundary Waters National Recreation Area (NRA) of 527,000 acres, permitting logging and mechanized travel in the latter area and removing from wilderness designation a number of large scenic lakes such as La Croix, Basswood, Saganaga, and Seagull. The bill is strongly opposed by environmentalists.

May 7, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness is formed with Miron "Bud" Heinselman as chair, in opposition to Representative James Oberstar's 1975 bill, which would remove land from a designated wilderness for the purpose of creating a recreational area that would allow logging and mechanized travel. Its purpose is advocating greater protection of the Boundary Waters and "promoting the biological, intrinsic, aesthetic, economic, scientific, and spiritual values of wilderness." Other founding members include Fern Arpi, Chuck Dayton, Dan Engstrom, Dick Flint, Jan Green, Herb Johnson, Jack Mauritz, Steve Payne, Chuck Stoddard, Paul Toren, Herb Wright, and Dick Wyman.

Summer, a sophisticated visitor distribution system, using entry-point quotas on visitor numbers as a mechanism to redistribute visitor use and impacts throughout the wilderness, is instituted by the U.S. Forest Service.

Cans and glass bottles are prohibited from Quetico Provincial Park.

June 6, Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer (born February 6, 1884) dies at age 93. Explorer, photographer, student of Ojibwe legend and oral tradition, authority on the Minnesota-Ontario boundary lakes region, lifetime President of the Quetico-Superior Council, and one of eight founders of the Wilderness Society, Ober devoted his life to preserving wilderness and protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

July 8, an effigy identified as Sigurd Olson and Miron "Bud" Heinselman is hung outside the Ely High School, where approximately 1,000 people gather to participate in a Congressional hearing. Amid boos and catcalls, Olson speaks in favor of Congressman Don Fraser's bill that becomes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978. "This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent," Olson declares. "We can afford to cherish and protect it. Some places should be preserved from development of exploitation for they satisfy a human need for solace, belonging, and perspective. In the end we turn to nature in a frenzied chaotic world, there to find silence oneness wholeness spiritual release."

The Eastern timber wolf is reclassified from "endangered" to "threatened" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that administers the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The law still prohibits the killing of wolves with the exception of problem animals causing agricultural damage. The Fish and Wildlife Service also adopts a recovery plan (revised in 1992) for the purpose of increasing the number and range of timber wolves to ensure the animal's survival in the eastern half of the U.S. The recovery plan sets a population goal for Minnesota of 1,251 to 1,400 wolves by the year 2000, a goal that is achieved in the early 1980s. In 1989 a wolf population survey estimates the statewide population at between 1,550 and 1,750 animals.

October 21, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 95-495, is signed by President Jimmy Carter. The act adds 50,000 acres to the Boundary Waters, which now encompasses 1,098,057 acres, and extends greater wilderness protection to the area. The name is changed from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Act bans logging, mineral prospecting, and mining; all but bans snowmobile use; limits motorboat use to about two dozen lakes; limits the size of motors; and regulates the number of motorboats and motorized portages. It calls for limiting the number of motorized lakes to 16 in 1984, and 14 in 1999, totaling about 24% of the area's water acreage.

All logging in the wilderness ceases under the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 95-495, ending some 85 years of logging in the Boundary Waters.

A $5 reservation fee for entry into the Boundary Waters is implemented.

January 13, Sigurd Olson dies at age 82 after suffering a heart attack while snowshoeing with his wife Elizabeth near his home in Ely. Canoe outfitter, guide, educator, conservationist, wilderness advocate, and elder statesman of the Minnesota environmental movement, one-time president of the National Parks Association and of the Wilderness Society, eloquent and outspoken advocate of wilderness values, Sig published 9 books and more than 100 articles.

February 5, Calvin Rutstrum dies at age 86. A conservationist who worked with his friend Sigurd Olson in the successful campaign to restrict airplane travel above the Boundary Waters, Calvin published 15 books on wilderness, nature, and canoeing.

March 4, William "Bill" Magie dies at age 79. Bill was a canoe guide in the waters around Ely from 1962 to 1978, a co-founder of Friends of the Wilderness, and a lifelong advocate of wilderness protection.

March 8, the 1978 BWCA Act is upheld when the Supreme Court decides in an 8-1 decision (with Sandra Day O'Connor casting the dissenting vote) not to review lower court rulings in a three-year legal battle by the State of Minnesota and others challenging the constitutionality of the 1978 law.

May 29-June 24, a small island on Lake Two is set on fire by a careless camper, resulting in a major forest fire. For the first time in 76 years, a significant fire in the Boundary Waters is allowed to burn without intervention by the U.S. Forest Service.

Motors are banned from Brule Lake. In response to strong opposition to a motor ban on Brule, an exception was written into the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act providing that motors could be used on Brule until January 1994, or until businesses already in operation in 1977 were terminated. With the closing of the last business on Brule, the Sky Blue Water Resort, the motor ban goes into effect. In subsequent years, use by canoeists increases significantly.

Summer, an administrative appeal is filed by four groups the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and Defenders of Wildlife on 12 issues in U.S. Forest Service's new land and Resource management Plan for Superior National Forest, including an appeal for the Forest Service to close three truck portages in compliance with the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act.

March 20, following the 1986 Lake Two fire, a new prescribed natural-fire-management program is adopted by the U.S. Forest Service and implemented in the Boundary Waters. The policy allows lightning-ignited fires that pose no threat to people or property to burn themselves out naturally. This departure from the policy of suppressing all fires ends the "fire-suppression period" of management that began in 1911.

April, the Izaak Walton League, with four other groups, goes to court to stop the National Guard from conducting training flights as low as 2,500 feet over the Boundary Waters by F-4 Phantom Jet Fighters, which create sonic booms.

August, a 611-foot radio tower, proposed by Connecticut developer Timothy Martz to be constructed on a ridge near Esther Lake in Cook, is blocked by temporary injunction granted by County Ramsey County District Judge Donald Gross. The judge accepts the argument of environmentalist Harry Drabik, who sued on behalf of the state, arguing that the tower would ruin the scenic quality of an unspoiled wilderness.

October 15, a compromise regarding rebuilding of the Sawbill Trail is developed by the Sawbill Trail Consensus Committee, facilitated by Forest Service Tofte District Ranger Larry Dawson. The original plan calls for widening the trail's clearance for construction of a 55-mile-an-hour two-lane paved highway. When the bulldozers start clearing the first segment from Tofte in 1990, there is an uproar of protest. Many people believe the rebuilding will alter the trail's primitive character. The compromise results in special variances being sought from state and federal highway administrations, so that after the first 3 miles from Tofte the road is left unpaved and calcium chloride is applied for dust abatement. Road clearance is widened from 45 to 56 feet (rather than the 64 feet originally proposed) for a 45-mile-an-hour, 9-ton road with 12-foot driving lanes, 2-foot shoulders, and 3-foot ditches, with trees cleared an additional 10 feet on the ditch slopes on both sides of the road. The road is rerouted near Plouff Creek, known as Dead Man's Curve because of its many accidents, reducing the overall length of the Trail from 24 to 23 miles. Clearance for the last six miles is not altered, so that the Sawbill Trail now has an increasingly rustic feel as it approaches Sawbill Lake.

November 6, as a result of a 15-year effort on the part of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area truck portages that were to have been phased out as stipulated by the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act are closed when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth District reverses the decision of a lower court to allow them to continue operation.

November 17, a BWCAW draft management plan is released to the public via a news conference. Many people object to some of the provisions, especially the proposal to reduce the group size limit from 10 to 6 persons.

A new BWCAW management plan is implemented by the Superior National Forest, reducing visitor-group size limit from 10 to 9 persons, limiting the number of watercraft per group to 4, and operating the visitor distribution program at 67 percent rather than 85 percent campsite occupancy.

After a series of cuts in the Boundary Waters wilderness management budget, a $10 per-person user fee, in addition to the $12 registration fee, is authorized under the User Fee Demonstration Project, a three-year pilot program passed by Congress. In 1997, the first year the fee takes effect, about $1 million is generated to help fund portage and canoe landing maintenance, campsite rehabilitation, and law enforcement. The funds make up for the shortfall in the $2.5 million called for by the U.S. Forest Service plan to properly manage the Boundary Waters wilderness.

A federal mediation process is initiated by U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone to resolve issues relating to three motorized portages. The process, which lasts nearly nine months, is concluded on April 28, 1997, with recommendations for reducing airborne mercury pollution but without consensus on the core issues, losing an opportunity, in the words of Bill Hansen, for "the healing effect of a broad community consensus on wilderness policy."

Legislation allowing three motorized portages to resume operation is introduced by Eighth District Representative James Oberstar (D-MN) and Senator Rod Grams (R-MN) but does not pass. In part as a result of the debates surround the issue, membership in the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness peaks at 2,783 members.

Motorized vehicles are permitted to continue transporting motorboats across two portages, Trout and Prairie, by a rider on an unrelated transportation bill passed by Congress.

February 2001, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources develops a wolf management plan. The plan seeks to demonstrate that Minnesota is prepared to assume responsibility for the Eastern timber wolf when delisting occurs and that Minnesota will ensure the long-term survival of the wolf as required by the federal recovery plan.

October 19, Mardy Murie dies at age 101. Mardy was known as the "grandmother" and the "matriarch" of the modern conservation movement for her work on garnering support for the 1964 Wilderness Act and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In her 1980 testimony before Congress in support of expanding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) she said, "I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by, or so poor she cannot afford to keep them."

January 29, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett announces that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is "de-listing" or removing the western Great Lakes population of gray wolves from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. The Service is also proposing removal of the northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolves from the list. Both actions are taken in recognition of the success of gray wolf recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act. Gray wolves were previously listed as endangered in the lower 48 states, except in Minnesota, where they were listed as threatened.

August 7, traveling in two motorboats, five local men Barney J. Lakner, 37, Jay A. Olson, 19, Zachary R. Barton, 19, Travis J. Erzar, 20, and Casey J. Fenske, 19 and one 16-year-old juvenile, who come to be known as the "Ely Six," go on a rampage on Basswood Lake. During a night of drinking beer and discharging firearms, they terrorize and harass dozens of campers, including families with children. They use foul language, shoot a flare that explodes in the air, on two occasions release gasoline onto the lake and set it on fire, and occupy one campsite for 45 minutes, threatening to rape and kill the three traumatized campers a retired schoolteacher from suburban Chicago, his 26-year-old daughter, and his 11-year-old son, who hide deep in the brush during the ordeal. During the spree the men are reported to have shouted, "Fucking tourists . . . get the hell off our fucking property," and using local slang for "environmentally obnoxious" people "go home, fucking enox tree-huggers." After some of the campers report the disturbance by calling 911, the five men and the teenager are arrested within the hour not far from Basswood Lake. From the two boats authorities recover a high-powered, semi-automatic assault-style rifle with three 30-round clips, a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, a .22 caliber rifle, a .22 caliber pistol, ammunition, spent shell casings, fireworks residue, beer, and items stolen from one campsite. Lake County authorities file 79 charges against the six including terroristic threats, aggravated harassment, criminal damage to property, reckless discharge of firearms, underage possession of firearms, and underage alcohol consumption. The group also faces felony counts and charges from federal and Canadian authorities because they crossed into Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park, where they continued their rampage. Newsweek and other publications link the night of terror to deep-seeded resentment on the part of local people who oppose the 1978 restrictions limiting their access to the area. Some of these people were forced to sell their resorts and cabins when the area was set aside as protected wilderness. As reported by Larry Oakes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Lakner, a bread-truck driver, husband, and father, paid a $275 fine in 2004 for driving a snowmobile in the BWCA and [in July] Olson and Fenske were fined $225 each for driving ATVs in the BWCA in May." Perplexingly, five of the six members of the group were not yet born when the area was set aside. Newsweek asks if the behavior was "just youthful indiscretion or a troubling community character flaw?" Local outfitter Nancy Piragis says, "They learned these attitudes." Mayor chuck Novak says, "If what's in those complaints is proven true, I don't see any public support for this around here." The Timberjay, the community newspaper, says in an editorial, "While there has long been a tendency in our area to paint youthful rebels who run afoul of the Boundary Waters regulations as folk heroes, this is a different situation entirely . . . This wasn't . . . like motoring in a paddle-only lake, or a late-night border run on a snowmobile . . . This isn't folk hero material. Such actions should horrify everyone."


Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer

"The gift of language"

Copyright by Stephen Wilbers

First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: December 19, 2003

When Ernest Oberholtzer was 17, he suffered a severe bout of rheumatic fever that weakened his heart. His doctors told him he wouldn't survive the year.

On June 6, 1977, after a lifetime dedicated to preserving the Minnesota-Ontario lakes region as wilderness, his damaged heart gave out, and he died at the age of 93.

Ober was a man of many passions. At 28 he paddled with Ojibwe trapper and guide Billy Magee across the Canadian Barrens to Hudson Bay and back, completing the 2,000-mile, four-month exploration in freezing temperatures and blowing snow just before the onset of the sub-Arctic winter.

He fought to protect an area he considered "one of the rarest of all regions of the continent, if not the world," spearheading the 1930 defeat of a plan to convert the boundary waters lakes into a four great storage basins for the production of industrial hydroelectric power.

He photographed Native Americans and wildlife. He gathered Indian stories and legends. He studied the Ojibwe language at a time when our national policy was to suppress native culture and languages among Indian children. He played classical violin, collected books, and entertained friends by the dozen on his small Rainy Lake island.

More than anything Ober wanted to write. He wrote dozens of articles, thousands of letters to friends, and thousands more in support of his plan for wilderness preservation, but he never achieved his lifelong ambition: He never wrote a book about his travels with Billy Magee or about Native American legends. This failure haunted him as one of the great frustrations and disappointments of his life.

In his final years Ober was robbed of his ability to speak by a series of minor strokes. As reported by Joe Paddock in Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer, however, he still had good days.

Once, the late Ted Hall, a former correspondent and deputy New York bureau chief for Time-Life and publisher of the Rainy Lake Chronicle, was pushing Ober in his wheelchair down a sidewalk in International Falls.

According to Hall, "The whole morning there hadn't been a word you could understand. He just communicated by signs. And as we were crossing the street, an Indian woman called out to him and started a conversation."

Not until Ober's friend had gone did Hall realize that, in Ojibwe, Ober had been "completely, absolutely articulate." After the conversation Ober once again "couldn't get a word out."

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Wilderness Management

Natural History





Principal Sources

Michael Furtman, Magic on the Rocks: Canoe Country Pictographs (Birch Portage Press, Duluth, 2000)

Mary Alice Hansen, Sawbill: History and Tales (Sawbill Press, 2005).

Miron "Bud" Heinselman, The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem (University of Minnesota Press, 1996)

Duane Lund, Our Historic Boundary Waters (Adventure Publications, 1980)

Joe Paddock, Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001)

Kevin Proescholdt, Rip Rapson, and Miron L. Heinselman, Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 1995)

Newell Searle, Saving Quetico-Superior, A Land Set Apart (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1977)

Jerry Stebbins & Greg Breining, Boundary Waters (Nodin Press, 1983)

Boundary Waters Journal articles by Larry Ahlman, Michael Furtman, Mary King Hoff, Patrick Karns, Helen Sue Manzo, and Jon Nelson

Friends of the Boundary Waters Timeline for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest at http://www.friends_bwca.org/aboutus/timeline.html

W. J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America at http://pws.chartermi.net/~duluthikes/bw_ikes.htm

Superior National Forest History at http://www.superiornationalforest.org/history

Please send comments, information, and corrections to me at wilbe004@umn.edu. Thanks. Stephen Wilbers



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