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Image of Mallard Island.

A Sanctuary for All Time

A battle between two men shaped the first legislation in U.S. history to support
wilderness for its own sake. The story began on the shores of Rainy Lake.

by Joe Paddock

Mallard Island—a narrow 1,100-foot spit of rock, moss, and pine on Rainy Lake—has long been a spiritual retreat and place of solace for the myriad visitors who sojourn there. Sacred to the Rainy Lake Ojibwe people, it became the longtime home of wilderness explorer and conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer in 1922.

Mallard Island
Mallard Island

See slideshow of Jim Brandenburg images from Mallard Island and the Rainy Lake watershed.

The Mallard, with its gardens, floating docks, and collection of whimsical, nearly century-old buildings, remains a reflection of the mind and life of its owner. Visitors to Ober's island have described it as an ongoing salon, a gathering place of music, drama, and storytelling. Oberholtzer, called Ober by those who knew him, was a master storyteller who both taught and entertained his guests by way of story. Whether the story was serious or hilarious, he remained straight-faced but with an everlasting twinkle in his eyes.

Even the man who was to become Ober's decade-long enemy, the last of the great lumber barons, Edward Wellington Backus, found his way onto the Mallard. The Backus family had a retreat on a nearby island. Once a year these two neighbors would set aside their struggle and have a cup of tea together on one island or another. With the manners of Victorian gentlemen, surely they listened politely to each other's stories. But make no mistake, the battle between them was fierce and far-ranging. And its outcome would have lasting significance for wilderness and people in the boundary lakes region that stretched between Minnesota and Ontario—the area known as Quetico-Superior.

The conflict arose when Backus, whose pulp and paper mills were second in the world in total production, proposed a plan to turn much of the Rainy Lake watershed into a hydroelectric power basin through construction of dams. One of the most ambitious water-storage schemes in North American history, it would have raised lake levels in an expanse larger than Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut combined.

Clash of Giants. Ober and other landowners had suffered from flooding caused by a dam previously built by Backus. In 1925 they learned of his plan to construct, at government expense, a series of seven to 16 dams, converting lakes into four main storage basins to provide a steady supply of hydropower for the Backus industries. Saganaga Lake and Lac la Croix would be blocked, their waters diverted southward. The Namakan River, with its beautiful falls and rapids, was to be shut off entirely. Lake levels would rise by 5 to 72 feet, inundating shorelines and permanently altering the interconnected waterways, which Ober spoke of as a "maze of bewildering beauty."

In a series of articles in the Rainy Lake Chronicle in 1977, Newell Searle characterized the struggle between Ober and Backus as a "clash of giants." At the outset, however, no one would ever have described it so. Ober was well-educated and able, but his living had been hand-to-mouth. Born in the booming river town of Davenport, Iowa, in 1884, Ober grew up to be a physically small man, intelligent and charismatic, with an expansive imagination. At age 17, he was stricken with rheumatic fever, which resulted in a heart condition that would haunt him throughout life. Over and over, doctors would tell him he had but a year to live. Nevertheless, he went to Harvard, studied with some of the great thinkers of the era, and did a year of graduate work in landscape architecture.

Believing he hadn't long to live, instead of pursuing a conventional career, Ober went to the boundary lakes canoe country, where he said his health "improved with every stroke of the paddle." On June 25, 1912, Ober and his Ojibwe wilderness mentor Billy Magee embarked on a grueling four-month journey by canoe into then-unmapped territory west of Hudson Bay. They were lucky to return. Memory of this 2,000-mile journey would prove a powerful metaphor, promising a successful outcome for his next great challenge—the struggle to preserve the Quetico-Superior region he had come to love.

Ober's adversary also had a stake in the region. Backus was a man of extreme wealth, the principal owner of the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company and a string of subsidiaries that reached as far as Finland. He ran 23 logging camps and employed 4,000 people. A notoriously tough boss, he had a reputation for keeping his lumberjacks working for meals, socks, and tobacco. By the late 1920s, the Backus enterprises were worth an estimated $100 million.

The contest between the two men did not seem to be an equal one. To Ober's great advantage, however, their face-off played out on a stage where a new national idea about the use and value of wilderness was emerging. For that time, Ober was on the right side of history.

No Rubber Stamp. Due to the economic importance of his enterprises, Backus held significant influence over the International Joint Commission, which had been established to settle disputes arising along the international boundary waters. He was confident his water-impoundment plan would be rubber-stamped. However, a brilliant young New York lawyer named Sewell Tyng, with help from Ober, filed a brief with the commission, describing the problems and losses likely to result from the Backus plan. And the rubber stamp had to be set aside.

A group of conservation-minded business and professional men from Minneapolis asked Ober to write an analysis of the Backus plan. He responded with a 5,000-word document titled "Conservation or Confiscation." The men felt honor bound to show it to Backus, who shouted, "It's all a damned lie!" But he knew then that he was in for a fight. The group published 25,000 copies of the analysis and distributed them to the public.

Knowing it would be a mistake to let things rest as the Backus plan or nothing, Ober agreed to the group's request that he develop an alternative. Understanding the importance of lumbering, mining, and tourism to the region, Ober did not want to overreach, and he settled on a multiple-use approach. The key to his proposal was zoning, a concept introduced to him during his landscape architecture studies at Harvard. Simply put, Ober proposed the inner parts of the Rainy Lake watershed be kept roadless and isolated, with increasing possibilities for development in zones moving outward from these centers. His plan came to be known as simply the Program.

Ober traveled to "sell" the Program and, most important, to get the U.S. Forest Service on board. In the fall of 1927, an international forestry conference, inspired by the Program, was held in Duluth. Conference participants formed an organization to protect the wilderness values of the Rainy Lake watershed. Asked to lead this organization, Ober somewhat cautiously accepted, then named it the Quetico-Superior Council.

An irony of Ober's situation: In order to fight for wild places, he had to move to Minneapolis. There, Ober and his group of conservationists launched a campaign to gain public support for the Program. In response, powerful banking and business allies of Backus made themselves known with threats to the jobs and finances of the young business and professional men among the Minneapolis conservationists.

Despite the Program's early publicity gains, the conservationists understood that the Backus plan had to be stopped legislatively. Much of the boundary lakes region was under federal control, and U.S. Sen. Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota had begun drafting a bill intended to limit the Backus plan. Hearing of this, the conservationists convinced Shipstead to draft the bill around the concepts of the Program. The result first became known as the Shipstead-Newton bill and later the Shipstead-Nolan.

The conservationists fought for the Minnesota Legislature to send a resolution to the U.S. Congress in favor of this newly drafted national bill. The issue was fiercely debated in both state houses. At one point, referring to Ober's life on Mallard Island, a Backus supporter cried out, "He's a … he's a hermit!"

The hermit and his friends nevertheless prevailed, leaving Backus to express his outrage that a state legislature would so try to influence national legislation.

In spring 1928 the Shipstead-Newton bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress, and Ober spent much of the following two years in Washington, D.C., working for its passage. Backus was often there as well, testifying before congressional committees, arguing for the importance of lumber and other industries dependent on hydropower.

The fight over the bill's passage was long and furious, but on July 3, 1930, the Shipstead-Nolan bill passed unanimously on the last day of the session. On July 10, President Hoover signed it into law. It was the first legislation in U.S. history in support of wilderness values for their own sake, foreshadowing the Wilderness Act of 1964.

There remained much to be done, including passage of a Minnesota version of the Shipstead-Nolan bill and hearings with the International Joint Commission. Yet, in retrospect, it's clear that the Shipstead-Nolan Act spelled an end to the Backus plan.

Losing and Winning. Backus's final years were tragic. He'd risen swiftly to wealth and power, but he'd overreached, expanding his broad array of investments as the Great Depression took hold. Rather than tending to business, he'd given himself over to fighting the conservationists. His financial empire crashed. On Oct. 29, 1934, he died alone of a heart attack in his suite in New York's Vanderbilt Hotel.

Ober returned to his life on Mallard Island, but his work as a conservationist was far from over. He served untiringly as one of the Quetico-Superior movement's key figures—and then its elder statesman—until the late 1960s.

Near the end of his life, Ober remained troubled by the fact that only a third of the 10-million-acre watershed had received protection. He often said he wanted it all. Nevertheless, where there might have been immense water-storage basins leaving little hint of the boundary lakes as we now know them, we have Quetico Provincial Park, Voyageurs National Park, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Every year hundreds of thousands of Canadian and U.S. citizens explore the region's lakes, rivers, rapids, waterfalls, and forests. We have a chance to link ourselves, as Ober wrote, "with the primeval past" in these protected places that promise "sanctuary for all time to unborn multitudes."

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