Keeping the wilderness untrammeled

  • Updated: August 29, 2014 - 7:14 PM

Even with protective legislation, the fight to protect our wild lands must continue.


The 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the most heavily visited wilderness in the nation and the largest east of the Rockies and north of the Everglades.

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Fifty years ago tomorrow, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act into law. With that, our country embarked on a course to preserve by federal law some of our last remaining wild lands, along with the ecological processes and wilderness values they contained, in a new National Wilderness Preservation System.

Through the years, many Minnesotans have played important roles in this effort and have helped preserve special places such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for future generations.

The struggle for wilderness conservation in Minnesota did not begin or end with the Wilderness Act, of course. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ernest Oberholtzer of Rainy Lake and Sigurd Olson of Ely and conservation organizations such as the Izaak Walton League successfully worked to block logging of shoreline timber, construction of hydropower dams and road-building throughout what later became the Boundary Waters. They convinced the secretary of agriculture to give administrative wilderness designation to the Boundary Waters in 1926, and successfully lobbied Congress to pass a 1930 law prohibiting shoreline logging and alteration of water levels via dam construction.

Their work helped define the concept of wilderness across the country. In 1935, Oberholtzer became one of eight founders and Olson a charter member of the Wilderness Society, a conservation organization focused on saving remnants of America’s wilderness.

By the mid-1950s, they and other conservationists recognized that administrative designations were weak and easy to change, and realized that permanent protection in the federal statutes was needed. Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, a deep thinker and gifted writer, drafted the wilderness bill with advice from Olson and Oberholtzer and convinced Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., and Rep. John Saylor, R-Pa., to introduce the first wilderness bill in 1956.

It took eight long years, a national campaign directed by Zahniser and 19 congressional hearings before LBJ signed the bill into law in the Rose Garden ceremony. Standing with the president at the signing were former Minnesota Gov. and then-Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, a strong proponent of the measure, and Minnesota Congressman Al Quie, a cosponsor of the bill in the House.

The Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System of 54 areas that initially totaled 9.1 million acres, including the million-acre BWCA. (Special compromise language that allowed logging and motorboats to continue in the BWCA was ultimately removed by Congress in 1978.) The act also lyrically defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Zahniser had very carefully chosen the word “untrammeled” — meaning unmanipulated, uncontrolled, unconfined or unrestrained — as the precise definition he felt captured the essence of wilderness.

Now, a half-century later, Congress has responded to citizen support and expanded the National Wilderness Preservation System to a total of 758 areas that amount to just under 110 million acres. In our Lake Superior region, we have 27 wildernesses in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan that total 1.474 million acres, including the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the most heavily visited wilderness in the nation and the largest east of the Rockies and north of the Everglades.

Long-term protection of our wilderness areas did not end with congressional designation. In the past five decades, threats continue to loom for them: airborne pollutants such as mercury or haze from distant sources, exotic invasive species, visual intrusions such as nearby cell towers, proposed mining along their edges with potentially catastrophic water pollution, occasional lax or inappropriate stewardship by the federal land-management agencies and overuse by the very people who love these special places.

Sigurd Olson, before his death in 1982, prophetically warned us: “You’ve got to carry on the battle to preserve such beautiful places as this. The battle goes on endlessly. It’s your task — you’ve got to see that you keep the flame alive. … The whole world depends upon you.”

To celebrate this milestone anniversary, and to discuss current and future issues facing our region’s wilderness areas, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute of Northland College, Wilderness Watch and 11 other conservation organizations are hosting the Lake Superior Wilderness Conference in Duluth at the Inn on Lake Superior on Sept. 5-6. Go to:


Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis is the conservation director for Missoula-based Wilderness Watch. Mark Peterson is the executive director of Northland College’s Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute in Ashland, Wis.

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