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Protecting Minnesota's Wild Heritage

Izaak Walton League - 75 Years of Protecting Minnesota's Wild Heritage

© Michael Furtman (Note: this was written for the League's 75th Anniversary in 1997)

If you have hunted ducks or watched birds in or near the Upper Mississippi, Tamarac, or Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuges, Thief Lake, or any of Minnesota's wildlife management areas, there's someone you could thank on their birthday.

Same for those who fish, camp, or paddle in the Boundary Waters, motor through Voyageurs National Park, or hunt turkeys or pick morel mushrooms in the Richard Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest.

That "someone" is the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA), one of this nation's oldest conservation groups.

Of America's environmental groups, the IWLA ( known as the Ikes) are a horse of a different color. Founded in 1922 by hunters and anglers concerned about rapid development, increasing pollution, disappearing public hunting and fishing grounds, and the decline of fish and wildlife, it has not forgotten those sportsmen roots. Although not every IWLA member is a hunter and angler, it is an environmental group that not only supports those pastimes, but cherishes them. Some, like the Carver County Chapter, even have shooting ranges, others teach gun safety. But no matter the chapter's focus, one of the League's specialties is environmental education; lessons that clearly acknowledge the respectful use of fish, wildlife while preserving habitat for them.

"We're the middle of the road guys," said Tony Dean, IWLA Honorary National President (and television outdoor personality). "We take sensible positions on environmental issues."

So how would Minnesota differ without the League? Consider the following major victories.

Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge

The IWLA has always been in love with the Mississippi River. Early members noticed alarming declines in fish and wildlife along this river. Led by the Winona chapter, the League was responsible for Congress establishing this 200,000 acre, 300 mile long national wildlife refuge, ninety miles of which runs along the southeastern border of Minnesota. The IWLA not only conceived the idea of a refuge, but wrote the law that created it, and ushered it through Congress in 1924.

Similarly, the Ikes worked from 1928 to 1958 to establish Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge near Detroit Lakes, and the Prairie Woods Chapter there played a key role in the 1995 creation of Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge.

Save The Wetlands

Long before anyone else worried about wetland drainage, the IWLA saw the need to stop it. As early as the 1920s, the IWLA began efforts to restore Wisconsin's famous Horicon Marsh and the federal legislation that would eventually create the National Wildlife Refuge system.

In Minnesota, Thief, Mud, and Roseau lakes were all drained by 1916 through the creation of 600 miles of ditches. Yet virtually no crops were ever produced on what drainage advocates had hoped to be prime farmland. In 1929, the League sponsored "Rowe Bill" passed the state legislature, and the Conservation Department (now the DNR) began land acquisition. Before the IWLA was done (with the Crookston Chapter leading the way), fifty thousand acres were restored. Mud Lakes latter became Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.

But wetland drainage wasn't limited to the northwest portion of the state. In the late 1940s, Minnesota's Supervisor of Game Richard Dorer, an active Ike (later the MN Division's President) conceived of a plan to purchase what wetlands remained. Later coined the "Save the Wetlands" program (still emblazoned on the front cover of Minnesota's waterfowl hunting regulations), it became state law in 1951. A lack of funding threatened the program and through 1956, the IWLA had gathered and contributed nearly one quarter of the money received by the state treasurer from all sources. In 1957 they helped Dorer pass legislation to fund wetland acquisition through a one dollar surcharge added to the small game license.

The IWLA has not stood still on wetland protection. Along with other conservationists, the IWLA played important roles in the passage of Minnesota's Wetland Conservation Act of 1991, and the federal Swampbuster provisions. In the past decade, the League received an LCMR grant for the purpose of acquiring permanent public easements on wetlands, allowing them to acquire for the wildlife of Minnesota numerous wetlands that had been private and that were in danger of being lost. The League also played a role in the DNR's recent acquisition of important wetlands and uplands along Cook County's Swamp River. They've also been ardent supporters of CRP.

Public Lands and Waters Protection

There have been many other League projects in Minnesota. The Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest in seven of the state's southeastern counties was solely the accomplishment of the League. The foundation for Voyageurs National Park was laid by the League, including the purchase of lands which it then turned over to the National Park Service.

And the Boundary Waters simply would not exist without the IWLA, which began a campaign in 1923 to protect it. Over its seventy-five year involvement with what has become the BWCAW, the League halted two plans orchestrated by the counties and Forest Service that promised to build a road to every lake; was responsible for the air ban that forbade flights into the wilderness; and purchased numerous private lands within the wilderness that were sold to the Forest Service at no profit.

Joining with Trout Unlimited, the League was successful in a recent lawsuit that extended protected waters status to the tributaries of trout streams, protecting critical fish nursery areas.

The League has also played important roles in securing clean water legislation both at the state and national level, as well as being the primary mover in the passage of acid rain legislation. It is recognized nationally as a lead organization both in alternate fuels and community sustainability planning.

Seventy-five Years Young

Yes, Minnesota would look very different today had it not been for the Izaak Walton League. Many of the League's most visible projects, places like refuges, wildlife management areas, and parks, are today almost taken for granted. But the League recognizes its greatest challenges may lie ahead.

"During the next 75 years," said Executive Director Paul Hansen (himself a former Minnesotan), "conservation will not keep apace with the daunting array of new challenges we face without more participation from America's political heartland."

For those interested in participating in that future, they can find out more about the IWLA by contacting the Minnesota Division office at 555 Park Street, #140, St. Paul, MN 55103 (612-221-0215).

(A version of this article was originally printed in Outdoor News, and is reprinted here with the author's permission.)