Notices of the death Sunday of former Minnesota U.S. Rep. and longtime Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser at age 95 necessarily emphasized his extensive political career and public policy accomplishments, which were many.
Noted generally only in passing was his entanglement in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness conflict of the late 1970s.
Yet that conflict, which ended in what many politicos call the “Minnesota Massacre” of the state’s DFL Party and its key leaders, including Fraser, introduced Fraser to the rough-and-tumble world of statewide politics, and in many ways helped define his remaining years of public life.
During the run-up to the 1978 enactment of the most recent federal BWCA legislation, I lived in Ely and edited the Ely Miner, one of the town’s two newspapers at the time. In that position, I saw firsthand on many occasions how various politicians attempted to leverage the Boundary Waters conflict — the hot-blooded, tempestuous nature of which Minnesota has not seen since — to their advantage.
Some succeeded. Some didn’t.
The former included the late U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who represented northeast Minnesota, and longtime northeast Minnesota state Sen. Doug “Dougie” Johnson, DFL-Cook. Both were absolute masters in the ways they represented their constituents’ BWCA views.
In 1975, Oberstar had introduced a bill in Congress that attempted to address BWCA use and management conflicts that arose after the 1 million-acre “semi-wilderness” was included in the 1964 Wilderness Act.
“Semi-wilderness” because, unlike other wilderness areas included in the law, snowmobile and motorboat travel, and logging, were allowed to continue on a limited basis in the BWCA.
Minnesota U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, DFL, had pushed since the late 1950s for inclusion of the Boundary Waters in the ’64 act. Humphrey was a sincere wilderness advocate. But he recognized the political realities of his home state, and the DFL juggernaut that northeast Minnesota represented, and as a compromise included these “multiple uses” of the BWCA in the bill President Lyndon Johnson signed Sept. 3, 1964.
But rather than resolving these hot-button issues, the law set the stage for nearly continuous policy and legal disputes between the U.S. Forest Service, which regulates the BWCA, and the area’s various user groups.
Oberstar’s 1975 bill proposed two BWCA zones, one with full wilderness protection and one where logging and motorized travel could continue.
Subsequently, Fraser, a congressman then representing Minneapolis who had canoed the area himself, countered Oberstar’s bill with his own, saying, “My bill principally restores the BWCA to ... true wilderness status. In addition, we add about 35,000 acres at particular points around the periphery of the BWCA.”
Field hearings held in Minnesota by the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation highlighted the growing firestorm. Wilderness advocates carried the day at a St. Paul hearing, while in Ely, outside the high school auditorium where a second hearing drew some 1,000 people, author and Ely wilderness guru Sigurd Olson was hung in effigy from a logging-truck boom, as was Miron “Bud” Heinselman, a retired Forest Service researcher, wilderness-fire expert and a founder of the group Friends of the Boundary Waters. Heinselman maintained an Ely-area cabin on Burntside Lake and also advocated for BWCA wilderness protection.
Commonly seen outside the auditorium during the hearing were bumper stickers that read “Sierra Club Kiss My Axe.”
Meanwhile, 1978 was also an election year, and anyone running for statewide office was required to take a position on the pending BWCA legislation — and required also to show up in northeast Minnesota (which Fraser did for the field hearing and on other occasions).
On these visits, whether at public meetings or in smaller gatherings, Oberstar and Johnson were, as mentioned, masterful, stirring crowds to near fever pitch.
Far less effective was then-U.S. Sen. Wendell Anderson, who had resigned the Minnesota governorship in 1976 when U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale became vice president under President Jimmy Carter, elevating Lt. Gov. (and DFL pal) Rudy Perpich to the statehouse.
Completing the sweetheart deal, Perpich appointed Anderson to the U.S. Senate to finish Mondale’s term. So Anderson in 1978 was in effect seeking voter affirmation to the Senate seat he had awarded to himself.
But Anderson was seen by many in northeast Minnesota, among others, as attempting to support the BWCA conflict both ways, depending on whom he was addressing. Thus at the time another popular bumper sticker surfaced: “Unappoint Wendy.”
Fraser, meanwhile, also sought election to the U.S. Senate, running for the seat held by Muriel Humphrey, Hubert’s widow, who was filling out her husband’s term following his death in January 1978. Fraser was opposed by Johnson, the firebrand from Cook.
At the 1978 DFL convention, Anderson was endorsed in his Senate quest by a close margin. Fraser, meanwhile, suffered through three ballots before his nomination, and subsequently was booed and catcalled when he tried to speak. Anderson attempted to calm the crowd, but Fraser’s many dissenters stomped out en masse when he finally spoke.
In the end, it didn’t matter.
Fraser, whose BWCA bill had in the meantime become the “Burton-Vento bill,” named for U.S. Reps. Phil Burton, D-Calif., and Bruce Vento, D-Minn., lost the DFL primary to businessman Bob Short, who in the general election lost to Republican Dave Durenberger.
Similarly, Anderson was beaten by Republican Rudy Boschwitz. Completing the “Minnesota Massacre,” DFL Gov. Perpich was ousted by Republican U.S. Rep. Al Quie.
A year later, Fraser was elected Minneapolis mayor. Taking office Jan. 2, 1980, he served until Jan, 3, 1994, the longest of anyone in that office.
I never talked to Fraser again after those raucous times in Ely. But I remember this about him:
He was willing to take the heat that accompanied his convictions, and he seemed a good and decent man.