How can the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness be managed to preserve its untamed nature?
By Gustave Axelson
Something magical happens when I gaze out from underneath my overturned canoe-my arms, shoulders, and lower back working in concert to balance stern and bow in mid-air-and I see the wooden sign by the portage trail that reads: B.W.C.A. Wilderness.
My canoe gets lighter. My breathing comes easier. And there's a spring in my step.
Most days I commute to work in stop-and-go traffic, count down the hours from 8 to 5, then commute home for a few hours with my family-and mentally prepare myself to do it all again the next day. My life flows in rhythms set by car and clock.
Today, in the wilderness, time moves with the sun. If I want to go somewhere, I dip my paddle into the water to get there. My life flows in rhythms similar to those of the big bull moose I saw crossing a stream into a tamarack swamp.
To be sure, wilderness is a state of mind. It's not as if I won't have any interaction with human creation. I'll walk well-trod portage trails, build my fire under a steel grate, and camp near a fiberglass biffy.
But it takes a special place to conjure such feelings of intimacy with nature. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is just such a place, and historically it has conjured controversy as well. For the better part of the past century, this place has been the subject of angry debate between those seeking an escape from a motorized world and those relying on motors as their way to wilderness.
Today there's no debating the Boundary Waters' popularity as a mostly nonmotorized sanctuary-it's the nation's most visited wilderness area. But new questions are arising over what it means to manage a wilderness. And some people are asking if humans should have a larger role in mimicking the natural forces that keep the Boundary Waters a healthy ecosystem.
BEST ON THE PLANET. The BWCAW is more than 1 million acres of some of the best canoe country on the planet, where you can paddle and portage among 1,100 lakes.
Spend a day in the BWCAW-devoid of mechanized noise, but resounding with beaver tail slaps and loon yodeling-and you'll sense you're someplace special. Here Canada's boreal forest of balsam fir, spruce, and aspen dips south across the border to intermingle with Minnesota's eastern white and jack pines. Decades ago the Boundary Waters was the core of the last stronghold for gray (timber) wolves in the lower 48 states. Today, it's where another species-the Canada lynx-is making a comeback.
The Boundary Waters was the inspiration for the Wilderness Act-a landmark law passed in 1964 that established the National Wilderness Preservation System. Though the BWCAW was the largest wilderness area established under the act, it did not receive the same protections as others. Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the bill's original sponsor, made compromises with his northern Minnesota constituents that led to a special provision: "nothing in this Act shall preclude the continuance within the [Boundary Waters] of any already established use of motorboats."
Logging was also allowed to continue within the BWCAW. During the next decade, the U.S. Forest Service issued logging contracts for virgin forest. Motorboat use increased, and snowmobiles became popular for motoring into the Boundary Waters in winter.
Discontented with an increasingly motorized and harvested wilderness, environmental advocates such as Sigurd Olson called for greater protection. Olson had helped promote the Wilderness Act legislation since 1956, the same year his first book, The Singing Wilderness, became a bestseller. Working with just-retired Forest Service ecologist Miron "Bud" Heinselman, he sought complete wilderness protection for the Boundary Waters-no motors, no logging.
In 1974 Olson met with leaders from the Wilderness Society, Izaak Walton League, and Sierra Club at his cabin on Burntside Lake outside Ely.
Dick Flint, then chair of the Sierra Club's North Star Chapter, recalls, "There was only one rocking chair, which was where Sig sat. Everybody else gathered around, sitting on the floor like schoolchildren.
"With a wood stove illuminating the craggy features of his face, he talked about the values of wilderness well into the night. He motivated every one of us to do everything we could to save the Boundary Waters as true wilderness, a place of quiet and solitude."
TOUGHER ACT. That group led the charge to gain passage of the BWCA Wilderness Act of 1978. The law ended logging and snowmobiling, but allowed some motorboat use in about one-fifth of the waters.
Though they had hoped for full, nonmotorized protection, wilderness advocates were happier with the new act. Many northeastern Minnesota residents and resort owners, who considered motorized recreation in the Boundary Waters to be a way of life, were outraged. They viewed the 1978 act as a broken promise of the special provision in the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Distrust and animosity have marked recurring skirmishes by both sides of the wilderness issue. Seven court cases involving motorboats in the Boundary Waters have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, though every one has been denied a hearing. On the 25th anniversary of the 1978 act, newspapers in the northland called for a truce. An editorial in the Cook County News-Herald read: "We call for renewed efforts to truly reach community consensus on this treasured land, the BWCAW. . . . We don't have to like what was promised, much less approve of it. However, it is fairly certain that the resulting harmony between neighbors will be music to all ears."
HEAVY USE. The BWCAW makes up just 1 percent of today's 106-million-acre national wilderness system, yet it receives 10 percent of the system's traffic. It has attracted about 200,000 visitors each of the past three years.
The Forest Service, which manages the wilderness as part of the 3-million-acre Superior National Forest, says the BWCAW can sustain this use, but some wilderness advocates say the wilderness area should be expanded to accommodate growing numbers of people seeking solitude in canoe country. A 2003 proposal to the Forest Service by the nonprofit Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness to protect nearly 90,000 acres of roadless lands in the Superior National Forest would do just that. All of the lands are outside the BWCAW, yet worthy of wilderness designation, according to the organization's land surveys.
Flint now sits on the Friends' board of directors. He sees new reasons for more protected wilderness.
"When I moved to Minneapolis in 1964, there were 1.5 million people in the Twin Cities. Today, there are 3 million. And by 2025, there'll be 4 million," he says. "The Boundary Waters is already more crowded than it was when I was a canoe guide at Sawbill Lodge in the 1950s, when I could paddle for days without seeing a soul. And there's going to be a lot more people desiring solitude and wilderness.
"It seems to me that if we've got some additional wilderness-quality lands we could add to the Boundary Waters, we should do it now, before it's too late."
Some resort owners along the Gunflint Trail have another view. Mike Pazlar runs the Bearskin Lodge-a resort with 40 miles of cross-country ski trails and direct canoe access from motorized Bearskin Lake into the BWCAW. He says nearly all of his guests say they come to his lodge for the wilderness. Yet he doesn't want to see more of it.
"I tend to believe that the current amount of wilderness designated as BWCA is sufficient," he says. "In a perfect world, it'd be wonderful to have more wilderness, especially for wildlife habitat. But the people who live up here, we're happy with what there is now. I just don't want to see that divisiveness between well-intentioned groups come out again. It's just too hurtful within our BWCA community."
HANDS-OFF PHILOSOPHY. Meanwhile, the Forest Service is busy managing the wilderness that already exists within the Superior National Forest-and trying to maintain a healthy ecosystem while adhering to its interpretation of the 1978 BWCAW act.
"The wilderness philosophy is to let natural processes operate freely. People think that means hands-off management. But in reality, wilderness must be managed very intensively," says Barb Soderberg, public services team leader for the Superior National Forest. "We have to do a lot to minimize the impact of human activities, just so natural processes can operate unimpeded."
Those activities include managing entry point quotas; maintaining campsites, latrines, and portage trails; policing the nonmotorized areas; and monitoring air and water quality. A new duty is controlling nonnative invasive species, such as purple loosestrife and Eurasian watermilfoil.
With the big blowdown of July 4, 1999-a massive windstorm that toppled 40 million trees on 500,000 acres-came the added duty of prescribed fires within the wilderness. About 350,000 acres in the BWCAW were affected by the storm. The Forest Service is about one-third finished with its plan to burn parts of the blowdown area in the BWCAW, thereby creating a patchwork of fuel-free areas to inhibit a massive wildfire from leaving the wilderness and threatening people and property outside.
The blowdown was a reminder that the Boundary Waters is a disturbance-based ecosystem. Wind and fire are two disturbances inherent to the canoe country life cycle, says University of Minnesota forest research ecologist Lee Frelich. Furthermore, he says, fires set by humans were a common occurrence before Europeans arrived.
"Indigenous people set fires in small patches among white and red pine stands to clear out brush and create open areas, mostly on south-facing slopes," he says. "They were breezy areas that allowed relief from mosquitoes in the summer, and in the winter, they faced the sun so they were warmer. In the Boundary Waters today, there are a number of campsites located in those same exact spots."
TO BURN OR NOT TO BURN. The Forest Service has interpreted the Wilderness Act to allow for lightning-ignited fires within the BWCAW, but to preclude human-ignited, prescribed burns for forest management. The blowdown burning was an exception for preventing a catastrophic wildfire.
That no-burn policy could pose a problem for the jack pine, a distinctive, craggy tree that's plentiful throughout canoe country today, though it was more plentiful in presettlement times. Jack pines need fire to reproduce; the cones require high-intensity heat in order to explode and spread their seeds. Without fire, Forest Service planner Duane Lula says, large stands of jack pine within the BWCAW will die out and be succeeded by spruce and fir.
Frelich says this is one example of why wilderness advocates and forest managers should consider allowing prescribed burns within the BWCAW to mimic natural processes.
"We need to drop our hands-off policy in wilderness management and be more hands-on," he says. "We can't just draw a line around the Boundary Waters and leave it alone. Lightning strikes won't occur often enough to produce fires at their natural frequency, and this is an ecosystem dependent on fire.
"Besides, half of the Boundary Waters has already been logged. Restoring the area to its presettlement condition will require fire. When the Forest Service finishes its prescribed burns (on the blowdown), they should keep going and burn most of the rest of the Boundary Waters over the next 50 years."
Frelich warns that, if Boundary Waters lands don't burn, hardwood trees from the south will invade. As a result, the emblematic jack pine will be lost, replaced by red maple that could make the BWCAW look more like northern Wisconsin.
For some, this may be an ecological travesty. Others may not care about which trees inhabit the BWCAW landscape as long as we keep human hands out of the wilderness.
Surely the opinions will be as varied as the reasons people visit the Boundary Waters: for fishing or camping, paddling or motorboating, to share camaraderie with family and friends or to seek solitude for soul-searching.
Common ground has historically been hard to find in the BWCAW. But from a broader perspective, it's easy to see why passions run hot. With less than 3 percent of land in the lower 48 United States protected as wilderness, there are few wild places like the Boundary Waters for people to be passionate about.
Gustave Axelson, Minneapolis, is a freelance writer and member of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.