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Defense of the BWCA

Izaak Walton League of America
75 Years In Defense of the Boundary Waters

The Izaak Walton League of America began its long history of protection of what has become known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 1923 when the League's first President and founder, Will Dilg, made an impassioned plea in opposition to a plan to build roads in the area. The meeting, held on a snowy April evening in Duluth, Minnesota, came about as the result of a U.S. Forest Service plan to bisect the core of the "roadless area" with a main forest road. The counties, and local pro-development chambers of commerce, then began pushing their own agenda to capitalize on the presence of this new road. "A Road to Every Lake" was their slogan, and had it not been for the IWLA and other like-minded visionaries, the canoe country would never have survived this onslaught of development.

The following timeline reflects major battles fought and won on the behalf of the Boundary Waters and adjacent Quetico Provincial Park. All are the result of League efforts either alone, or in consort with other groups:

  • 1923 Scheme "A Road To Every Lake" killed.
  • 1928 Yet another road building plan put forth and stopped.
  • 1930 Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act passed; protects BWCAW lake shores from logging within 400 feet of them, and forbids alteration of lake levels through damming;
  • 1933 Minnesota passes similar legislation at behest of MN Division IWLA;
  • 1934 Ikes stop proposal to build power dams on international border lakes;
  • 1939 Forest Service, at Ikes urging, enlarges roadless area to over one million acres;
  • 1941 Forest Service prohibits logging on 362,000 acres adjacent to Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park;
  • 1941 IWLA meets with Quetico officials. Reach agreement on logging practices similar to the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act.
  • 1945 IWLA Endowment (established in 1943) begins purchases of inholdings to be turned over to the government. Makes critical purchases during times of budget short-falls, totaling nearly 7,000 acres by 1965;
  • 1948 Seven years after the IWLA drafts it, the Thye-Blatnik bill becomes law, authorizing the purchase of private inholdings in the wilderness;
  • 1949 At the behest of the League and other conservationists, President Truman issues Executive Order 10092 banning flights into the wilderness, or below 4000 feet. It is the first such ban in the world. It became effective on January 1, 1951 for the general public and January 1, 1952 for those who owned land within the roadless area of the Superior National Forest;
  • 1954 Ontario announces Quetico Provincial Park policy will stress wilderness preservation;
  • 1955 Canada prohibits most landings of aircraft within Quetico;
  • 1956 League pushes passage of Thye-Humphrey-Blatnik-Andresen Bill authorizing additional $2 million to complete acquisitions of inholdings;
  • 1964 Wilderness Act passed. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area of the Superior National Forest is included in Wilderness Act's passage, although a great number of "non-conforming" uses are allowed within, including widespread motor and snowmobile use;
  • 1964 Selke Committee, urged by Ikes, is established. Develops critical motor restrictions in wilderness, visitor permits, logging restrictions.
  • 1965 Secretary of Agriculture Freeman implements much of the Selke Committee's recommendations and announces a new management plan that enhances wilderness protection and values;
  • 1973 League is victorious in a lawsuit to prohibit mining in Boundary Waters; sets precedent for other wilderness areas.
  • 1978 Passage of the Boundary Waters bill further enhancing wilderness protection. Heatedly debated from 1975 through 1978, numerous bills and variations were floated during this period. The IWLA, and other environmental groups, combine efforts through a new umbrella organization, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The final result, Public Law 95-495 of 1978, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Act, is signed into law on October 21, 1978 by President Jimmy Carter. Now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the canoe country is brought nearer to full compliance with the 1964 Wilderness Act. However, it remains compromised, and significant motor use remained.;
  • 1989 Air National Guard halts military overflights in an agreement with IWLA and others;
  • 1992 November 6, U.S Court of Appeals for the Eighth District reverses decision of lower court to leave the truck portages open. Portages closed, and remain closed to date.
  • 1992 IWLA's Minnesota Division plays key role in new strong BWCAW management plan. Reduces overnight permits by 25% in order to protect the physical resource and provide better opportunities for solitude.
  • 1996 League assists defeat of bills that would have increased motor use, turned control over to local management councils. The bills are the direct result of animosity over the closure of the truck portages;
  • 1996-7 League represented in Federal Mediation to determine future of BWCAW. Mediation ends in April of 1997 after nine months of negotiations. Although some good measures are agreed upon in mediation and passed on to Congress, including an IWLA introduced measure directing Congress to allocate funds and resources necessary to determine the source of mercury contamination poisoning BWCAW lakes and fish, and then to enact measures to reduce or eliminate it, the core issue of the mediation - the controversial truck portages - remained unresolved.
  • 1997 - Spring - Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN) and Senator Rod Grams (R-MN) introduce legislation to put trucks back on three portages, and end the 1999 phase-out of outboards from Seagull Lake. The League negotiators at the mediation had warned that this would happen. Eventually, the phase out for Seagull Lake was left in place, but two of the three truck portages (Prairie and Trout Lake portages) were returned by legislation. A compromise was struck between Oberstar and the late Rep. Bruce Vento, and in exchange for the return of the two portages, motors were removed from Canoe and Alder Lakes, two small lakes in the eastern BWCAW. 
  • 1997 - June 16 - Fifth District U.S. Court Judge Rosenbaum rules against wise-use lawsuit that would have over-turned the U.S. Forest Service's Boundary Waters Management Plan.
  • 1999 -- A huge windstorm hits the BWCAW on July 4, leaving a swath 9 x 30 miles with over 80% tree loss. The League participates in meetings to speed up the process by which the USFS can remove storm damaged trees (fuel for fires) on the edge of the wilderness, while insuring environmental safeguards are met.
  • 2000 -- the League continues to monitor the storm damaged areas, and meet with the USFS on how to best deal with the impending wildfires sure to erupt in the wilderness.
  • 2001 -- the MN Division, via the McCabe Chapter, comments on the USFS plan to intentionally burn approximately 80,000 acres of the BWCAW over the next decade.