Canoe Country Advocacy

75 Years of Canoe Country Advocacy

by Michael Furtman

© Text and Photographs, Michael Furtman, 1997

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Boundary Waters knows it is a place not only of great beauty, but one over which numerous ideological and political battles have been fought. Many, however, seem to believe that those fights began in the 1960s or 70s, and are just culminating in the current round of fisticuffs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What is today's BWCAW has been a colicky baby since its birth, a birth mid-wifed by one of America's oldest conservation groups, the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA). The IWLA is a grass-roots environmental group, formed into state divisions, with two professionally staffed offices, one in the Washington, DC area, and one in the Twin Cities. Its interests lie not just in wilderness, but in clean air and water, soil and wetland protection, fish, wildlife and natural resource use and management, and issues surrounding sustainable development and human population. Formed in 1922 by 54 Chicago area hunters and anglers who met to discuss their concerns over declining fish and wildlife populations and the rampant pollution spewed by a developing nation, the League has the longest history of any group involved in the protection for the Boundary Waters and Quetico.

It began in 1923 when the IWLA, also known as the Ikes, first testified against a plan to build roads in the wilderness. Local chambers of commerce, the counties, and the U.S. Forest Service were proposing to crisscross the canoe country with roads. The Forest Service wanted the roads for fire protection - including one road that would have run from Ely to Gunflint Lake down a route located approximately where today's Kekakabic hiking trail is found - but the pro-road local interests boasted of it as a campaign called "A Road To Every Lake.'' From the Forest Services main roads, development interests planned to eventually build spur roads to every lake. Development, the counties hoped, would follow quickly. And it surely would have.

On April 3, 1923, Will Dilg, the IWLA's first president and founder, despite poor health, took the train to Duluth and appeared at a crucial public hearing held at the St. Louis County Courthouse. He testified passionately that the Forest Service should abandon its road plans and presented a resolution proposing that they buy the private inholdings within this portion of the Superior National Forest.

A report in the April, 1923 edition of the Izaak Walton League Monthly, written by Donald Hough, had this to say about that fateful hearing, the outcome of which, had it gone the other way, would have meant there would be no Boundary Waters today:

"The sportsmen of this United States - the outdoorsmen and the campers and the lovers of wild life and wild country - on April 3 sent the most powerful delegation to Duluth, Minnesota, that has ever been assembled in so remote a section for a similar purpose and convinced both the United States Forest Service and the people of northeastern Minnesota that the biggest word in the Superior Forest dictionary is 'National' - that it is bigger than the forest itself. It took the proponents of the roads about ten minutes to give their side. When the opponents, gathered from various parts of the country, got through, well, the St. Louis County Courthouse is still shaking."

Dilg, after lengthy testimony outlining the League's objections to the road, closed the conference by making an impassioned plea:

"Only God could make that forest," he declared, "and only man can destroy it. It must be preserved as wilderness for future generations of young Americans, and none of us have the moral right to destroy it as such."

At that point, the Forest Service put its road plans on the shelf, and the conference attendees drafted a resolution stating that "those present are unalterably opposed to the construction of these proposed automobile highways through the Superior National Forest." Of the 150 people in attendance, only seven voted against the resolution. The conference also adopted the IWLA's resolution to begin the purchase of private lands within the "roadless" areas.

As important as these early resolutions were, they weren't the only critical events to transpire at this meeting. After the meeting a group of men gathered, including Dilg, to form a new organization whose goal would be to work toward wilderness protection of the canoe country. This organization, originally named the Superior National Forest Association, soon dissolved, quickly to be supplanted by the Quetico-Superior Council (a subset of was named the Quetico-Superior Committee on June 30, 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Executive Order #6783), chose the Izaak Walton League as its official "clearing house" through which all its news and meeting minutes would be published in the League's monthly newsletter.

Opponents of the BWCAW's wilderness status have often claimed that the move to protect the canoe country came largely from "outsiders." With that in mind, it is interesting to note that of the first officers of this 1923 umbrella organization, most were from northeastern Minnesota, including T.S. Whitten of Tower as vice-president, Jim Lawrie of Duluth as treasurer, and Herman Olson of Tower, A.E. Hoel of Gilbert, and Dr. George Ayres of Ely on the executive committee. The few remaining founders were also mostly Minnesotans, hailing from St. Paul.

Another important meeting occurred the following year in 1924. A young wilderness guide named Sigurd Olson did not waste the opportunity when he guided a powerful early conservationist, the IWLA's Will Dilg, who has been described as an evangelist for the cause of conservation. On a summer evening, with sweet campfire smoke in the air and broad Knife Lake lapping at their feet, Olson discussed the future of the canoe country with his client. Olson, showing Dilg the vibrant heart of the canoe country, convinced him that the dream of preserving it was one of necessity. And Dilg responded by promising Olson that "the League must dedicate itself to saving the wilderness, for it belongs to all Americans." It is a promise the League still honors.

Like many Boundary Waters controversies, the road plans didn't vanish easily, but resurfaced in 1925. About this time, two IWLA members who were also Forest Service employees, Arthur Carhartt and Aldo Leopold, separately explored this wilderness. Both were enthralled, and each reported to their Forest Service superiors that they believed the heart of the canoe country should remain roadless and that only water travel should be promoted. Despite their recommendations, the plans to build roads in the wilderness would not go away.

Not one to have his recommendations ignored, Aldo Leopold set up a meeting with Seth Gordon, the IWLA's conservation director. Leopold, a very active IWLA member from Wisconsin and a League national director, impressed upon Gordon that the proposed roads posed a threat that would forever keep this area from being designated wilderness (a concept itself that was very new, and of which, Leopold was an early architect). He also impressed upon Gordon that it was critical that the private inholdings within the area be purchased since it would be "absurd to fight about something that didn't exist" and that a public wilderness couldn't exist on private lands, which constituted about a third of the canoe country.

The road plans were again defeated in 1926, with the effort largely led by the IWLA and the Superior National Forest Association, the result of which finally convinced the Forest Service to officially set aside three roadless portions (the heart of today's BWCAW) of "no less than 1,000 square miles of the best canoe country in the Superior without roads of any character." This decision, brokered by Leopold and which was formalized in an agreement with the League in 1926 did, however, allow the Fernberg and Echo Trails to be built. And so the first of many "compromises" involving this wilderness was struck.

From this first conflict, the League engaged in battles almost too numerous to count. The Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, drafted in 1928 by the League, was signed into law 1930 by President Herbert Hoover (himself once a national officer in the IWLA) after two years intense lobbying, a critical piece of federal legislation that prohibited logging within 400' of shorelines or the manipulation of water levels with the roadless areas. In 1933, the Minnesota Division of the IWLA was able to get a nearly identical act passed in the Minnesota legislature to protect state-owned lands within the wilderness.

The passage of these bills was largely the result of a battle that began in 1925 when a scheme to build hydropower dams on the large border lakes surfaced. Minnesota timber-magnate Edward Backus proposed dams which would have flooded several thousand miles of the international border's shorelines. The legislation wasn't enough, though, to squelch the plan, since it involved international waters. The League and the Quetico-Superior Council feverishly lobbied the International Joint Commission (IJC), which had jurisdiction over these waters. In 1934 the IJC issued a report that neither supported or rejected the proposal. Without support, and with plenty of opposition, the plan finally withered away.

The move toward wilderness status, which until the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act was only an administrative title (which meant it could be easily reversed) was painfully slow. Realizing that one of the largest threats to the canoe country were private inholdings, the IWLA turned its efforts to the passage of the Thye-Blatnik Bill of 1948, which would provide money for the Forest Service to buy private lands from willing sellers. When passed, however, the bill only appropriated a disappointing $500,000, which was quickly spent. Six more years of effort resulted in the passage of a similar bill (Thye-Humphrey-Blatnik-Andresen Act) in 1956, but Congress only appropriated half the promised $2 million and repeatedly ignored pleas to release the rest. Shortfalls were killing the program while development was rampant. The IWLA alone was able to respond, thanks to its early concern about these inholdings and the warnings of member Aldo Leopold. The League had insightfully built up a revolving endowment fund established in 1943 for this purpose.

Thus began the greatest private land purchase program in the canoe country's conservation history. Beginning in 1945, and throughout this era, the League made exceptional wise use of its money. During periods when Congress failed to appropriate the promised buy-out funds, the endowment avoided the complete collapse of the program by purchasing lands to be resold later to the Forest Service, usually at a net loss to the League. Much of this effort was led by northeastern Minnesota members of the IWLA, including substantial effort by the Grand Rapids Chapter whose members made many trips to the area to select and negotiate acquisitions. Minnesota IWLA member Frank Hubachek even purchased 2700 acres personally, which he donated to the Forest Service.

These early visionaries of the League believed that if the area became developed with resorts, roads and dams, it would not only lose its wilderness character, it would quickly become ineligible for wilderness status. Decades of battles, with incremental victories, were essential in keeping the canoe country wild. Without the diligence of these early conservationists, the canoe country could have easily become another Brainerd lakes region or Wisconsin Dells.

During this same post World War II era, a new threat to the wilderness came in the form of bush planes invading the core of the canoe country, and with them came dozens of fly-in fishing resorts and private cabins. Ely became the busiest inland float-plane base in the world. While the operations may have been wonderful for day fishermen and those who made money from the frequent flights into what had been canoe country, they made a mockery of any effort to find solitude, or the labor of those who paddled and portaged for days to reach a spot, only to have day visitors drop in effortlessly by airplane. The Ikes, with its associate group, the Quetico-Superior Council, lobbied for, and won, an Executive Order signed by President Truman prohibiting flights below 4,000 feet or landing within the wilderness. It was the first air ban anywhere in the world established other than for military purposes.

Writing in the January, 1950 issue of the Izaak Walton League's magazine, Outdoor America, Sigurd Olson had this to say about the ban on float planes:

"This victory is a great step forward toward the realization of the plan to, create, by treaty with Canada, an International Peace Memorial Forest in the Quetico-Superior area. This proposal will have as one of its major tenets the preservation of the wilderness interior on both sides of the border. The recent Air Space Reservation, the first of its kind in the history of the world, not only recognizes the value of all wilderness, but gives new incentive to the Quetico-Superior program and is a major victory for the Izaak Walton League."

Sigurd Olson was linked inexorably with the League. In addition to eliciting, around that fateful campfire, Dilg's promise on behalf of the IWLA to always protect the canoe country, Olson spurred numerous League actions over the decades. He wrote frequently for the League's magazine, and over the years organized two different IWLA chapters in Ely, including one named after his old friend, Jack Linklater. In January of 1948, Sig Olson became the IWLA's Wilderness Ecologist, a position of which he was immensely proud, and one he held until his death in 1982. Throughout the battles to follow, it was this title, as well as his immensely popular "voice of the canoe country" immortalized in his books, that gave him the position and political power to accomplish much of his wilderness protection goals. (For an enlightening view of Sigurd Olson's life and conservation work, read the recently released "A Wilderness Within, The Life of Sigurd F. Olson" by David Backes, University of Minnesota Press.)

The controversy surrounding the canoe country heated up again in early 1960s in preparation for the coming of the 1964 Wilderness Act, a law the IWLA and other conservation groups had been working toward for decades. Although eventually the Boundary Waters was included in the passage of this bill, special exemptions allowed many non-conforming uses, including the continued use of outboard motors, snowmobiles, and logging. Because of this, the BWCA debate hardly hesitated.

At this time, then Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, stepped into the fray at the behest of the league and other conservationists. In the spring of 1964 he appointed what became known as the Selke Committee (named after the committee chairman, George Selke, Minnesota's Conservation Commissioner) to examine Boundary Waters issues. On it sat IWLA Minnesota Division Vice-president, Ray Haik. Freeman also appointed a Boundary Waters Ad Hoc Committee at about the same time, although its relationship to the Selcke Committee isn't clear. Haik also sat on this committee, along with fellow Ikes Adolph Anderson, Arnold Bolz, Harry Frank, and Sig Olson. Following heated hearings around the state, the Selke committee's recommendations, known as the Freeman Directive, created interior and portal zones, established restrictions on snowmobile--outboard motor routes and created "paddle only" zones, and forbade roads or logging incursions in the wilderness. These guidelines were the precursor to today's permit and entry point system, and the Boundary Waters operated under this guide for over a decade.

All of this IWLA involvement had not gone unnoticed by those who did not want to see the area become a motorless wilderness. In the middle of the 1970s, if you drove through Ely, you would have seen bumper stickers that read "Sierra Go Home - Take Ike With You." The causes for the animosity were the coming of the 1978 Boundary Waters Act, which was then just surfacing; a court case the IWLA had brought against mining interests, which is a powerful economic force in northern Minnesota; and the League's testimony in Ely at a public hearing on the removal of the bounty on timber wolves. These actions did little to endear the League to some local interests.

The mining suit was a landmark action in wilderness protection. In December of 1969, the IWLA sued a group of defendants who had proposed exploring 150,000 acres of the Boundary Waters for minerals, under mineral rights they claimed they still held despite the BWCA's inclusion in the Wilderness Act of 1964. The League's suit, written by Ray Haik, a Minneapolis attorney and IWLA National President, contended that by being including in the Wilderness Act, Congress clearly intended for the BWCA's wilderness values to supersede any development values, including mineral production. On January 5, 1973, Judge Philip Neville agreed, stating in his decision that "A wilderness purpose plain and simple has to be inconsistent with and antagonistic to a purpose to allow any commercial activity such as mining within the BWCA." The League's victory in this suit not only protected the Boundary Waters from mining, it served as a precedent for the protection of all wilderness areas, thanks to Neville's comments that "….in enacting the Wilderness Act, Congress engaged in an exercise in futility if the court is to adopt the view that mineral rights prevail over wilderness objectives." He also wrote: "To create wilderness and in the same breath to allow for its destruction could not have been the real Congressional intent."

Additional mining protections were incorporated into the final version of the 1978 Boundary Waters Act, which finally added the "W" to BWCA. The story of this law is in itself so complicated it is worthy of its own book (which has been written: read "Troubled Waters" by Proescholdt, Rapson, and Heinselman, North Star Press), but it only came about after a dizzying array of Boundary Waters bills had surfaced. Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN), in whose district the BWCAW is located, had introduced one of these bills. Trying to be receptive to the pro-motor portion of his constituency, Oberstar's bill would have obligated the Forest Service to allow a wide range of uses within the Boundary Waters, including motor routes, snowmobile use, and continued logging. It did, however, offer something to the conservation community by increasing the size of the BWCA.

Some environmental groups seemed near to endorsing the bill. The IWLA, however, wasn't one of them. Then IWLA National President, Dave Zentner of Duluth, saw the Oberstar bill as a precedent that would mean that true wilderness status would never be achieved. When activists from the various groups gathered to discuss the proposal, Zentner asked a simple question: What would the law look like if they wrote it?

Paul Toren, who was then the Minnesota Division IWLA President, related in correspondence with me how the events shaped up:

"These comments are based on my memory of events, aided by my appointment calendars for 1975 and 1976, and some material in Minnesota Division files. I believe that some of my personal files from this period are in the IWLA archive at the Minnesota Historical Society.

The first response of the IWLA to the introduction of the Oberstar Bill in October 1975 was a statement by David Zentner expressing opposition to the bill immediately after it was introduced. (At this time much of the environmental community was trying to decide if it should attempt to negotiate with Oberstar.) Several proposed compromises were developed without any apparent response or cooperation by Rep. Oberstar. He continued his strong anti-wilderness position in northern Minnesota, although when he spoke on January 11, 1975 to a District DFL meeting in Anoka, (part of the Eighth Congressional District), he took a more conciliatory stance with this metro area audience.

An alternative proposal was developed by the Minnesota DNR and discussed with me at a meeting with Commissioner Robert Herbst on February 12, 1976. (Incidentally, the DNR Director of Planning at that time was Jerry Kuehn, an active member of the IWLA Agassiz Chapter.) I agreed to present this proposal to the Minnesota Division Wilderness Committee, and did so at a meeting in Duluth on February 29. This meeting concluded with a decision not to support the DNR proposal, and locked the Minnesota IWLA into a strong pro-wilderness position. I returned to the Twin Cities with this decision, and had the unpleasant job of informing Bob Herbst at a press briefing on March 1 that the Minnesota Ikes were not supporting the DNR proposal.

Now that we knew what we were against, we had to decide exactly what we were for. At this time the BWCA was protected by a network of administrative rules and decisions which had built up over the years. Some in the Minnesota IWLA were concerned that in attempting to acquire wilderness status for the BWCA we might lose the existing protections. The majority however favored attempting to obtain statutory wilderness status and protection for the BWCA. My question at the time was: Is it possible to have both? I asked this question of several attorneys familiar with the BWCA issue, and received from Phil Olfelt a draft of a simple bill which in essence said "(1) Continue all existing protection, (2) No mining, (3) No motors, and (4) No logging. These points were embodied in a Division Policy Resolution adopted on May 2, 1976. On May 7, 1976, the Friends of the Boundary Waters was organized and adopted the points in the IWLA resolution as its own policy and mission statement."

After the smoke cleared, and Public Law 95-495 (1978 Boundary Waters Act) passed on October 21, 1978, the current form of the Boundary Waters emerged: no logging or mining, some motors, and all the previously existing protections remained intact. It was a compromise bill that seemingly no one has been happy with, and came about after a battle that at times not only divided the state of Minnesota, but even the IWLA, as chapters in northern Minnesota either dissolved or lost substantial membership thanks to the controversy. Despite the attrition to its chapters, the IWLA's Minnesota Division and the national office continued to adhere to the promise made those many years ago from Dilg to Olson.

In recent years the IWLA has continued its BWCAW and Quetico involvement, as well as playing a critical role in the establishment of Voyageurs National Park. Working with the Friends of the Boundary Waters and others, the League reached agreement in 1989 with the Air National Guard to eliminate military overflights in the wilderness. The League was a participant in the 1992 court ruling that closed the truck portages. Also in 1992, IWLA representatives sat on the Forest Service's BWCAW Management Plan Task Force, followed two years later by the Outfitter-Guide Task Force. Just this past year, two Ikes served on the recently ended Federal Mediation team. Employees at its national office, and citizen activists in the Minnesota Division, worked to defeat the 1996 versions of the Grams-Oberstar BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park legislation. A Minnesota Division board member met with Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt on the same issue that helped to garner the Clinton Administration's promise of a veto. No doubt, the League will continue its role so long as there are issues affecting the BWCAW's status and protection.

In 1949, Sigurd Olson wrote this about the League:

"The Izaak Walton League of America has played a magnificent part in the long effort to preserve and bring about the establishment of the International Peace Forest (today's BWCAW, Quetico and Voyageurs National Park). Its effort…is a shining example of consistency of purpose and belief in a high ideal."

It is safe to say that without the work of the IWLA, the history of the canoe country would have been very, very different. Curse us or love us, you have to tip your hat to the League's endurance.

(This article first appeared in the Autumn, 1997 issue of Boundary Waters Journal. For information on this quarterly magazine, contact the publisher at 1-800-548-7319.)

© Michael Furtman, 1997.

No portion of this article or the photographs may be reprinted or otherwise used without the written permission of the author.