Dennis Anderson: DNR's wilderness place raises questions

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 16, 2011 - 12:52 AM

A cabin owned by the agency got noticed when it burned. Some wonder why that structure and another were allowed in the BWCA.

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This cabin owned by the DNR and used as an outpost by conservation officers in the BWCA burned in the forest fire that still threatens the area. Virtually all other cabins in the wilderness were removed following passage of the 1978 law that governs the area, but the Forest Service allowed the DNR to keep its cabin. An addition was built onto it four years ago.

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Though only a footnote to the big fire that has engulfed more than 100,000 acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the recognition, now widespread, that the Department of Natural Resources kept a cabin within the wilderness as an outpost for its enforcement officers has surprised some people.

According to the Forest Service, the cabin, one of two in the BWCA owned by the DNR, burned down.

"I didn't know it was there,'' said Paul Danicic, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. "It would seem [incongruous] that [the DNR] would keep a cabin there, in the wilderness. A lot of families and resort owners sacrificed their homes and businesses'' when the wilderness was established.

The Lake Insula cabin sat as much as 200 yards from the lakeshore and wasn't readily visible to passersby. Its existence was viewed by some in Ely with derision because resorts and private cabins within the wilderness boundaries were bought by the government and either burned down or removed after enactment of the 1964 and 1978 laws governing the BWCA.

DNR Operations Services Director Laurie Martinson said Thursday it's unknown whether the cabin will be rebuilt.

Four years ago, the DNR spent $5,000 to add a room onto the cabin, build a deck and make other repairs. The cabin's gas stove and oven were fueled by a 100-pound LP gas tank. A wood stove provided heat. An outhouse sat nearby.

Though motorized travel in the wilderness generally was phased out after Congress approved the 1978 law, DNR enforcement officers in recent years have traveled into the BWCA on snowmobiles, in some cases on routine patrols to check winter anglers.

Since 9/11, the DNR officers have at times been accompanied by U.S. Border Patrol and Forest Service officers.

Dog mushers in particular have protested the officers' snowmobile travel because dog teams and sleds don't readily fit into snowmobile tracks left on portages.

A spokesperson for the Forest Service in Duluth said a memorandum of understanding between it and the DNR allowed the DNR to keep the Insula cabin in the wilderness, as well as the agency's second cabin, on Little Saganaga Lake.

"The [Insula] cabin was to be used only for administrative purposes and for other uses as part of the DNR's mission,'' said Kris Reichenbach of the Forest Service.

When Dorothy Molter and Benny Ambrose, the last permanent residents of the BWCA, died, the Forest Service removed their cabins and other structures over the protests of some in Ely and elsewhere who said one or more structures should be left standing to honor the wilderness spirit the two embodied.

Outfitters, resort owners and others who make a living in the BWCA who were contacted about the DNR cabin wouldn't speak on the record. Their work is heavy regulated by the Forest Service and overseen by the DNR, they said, and they need to get along with both agencies.

One outfitter who travels in the wilderness in winter by dog sled reported being checked by as many as five law enforcement officers riding snowmobiles, some from DNR, others from the Border Patrol and Forest Service.

"That's how they got to that cabin in winter, on snowmobiles,'' one said. "They rode up through Thomas [Lake] and into Insula.''

This past winter, at least one DNR conservation officer traveled by dog sled to check BWCA anglers. Attempts to reach area officers Thursday were unsuccessful.

Reichenbach of the Forest Service said the DNR is required to tell her agency if its officers enter the boundary waters on snowmobiles. "Unless it's a matter of hot pursuit or a safety issue, they are required to communicate with us,'' she said.

Border security in the BWCA has taken different tacks in recent years. Some outfitters say the federal Department of Homeland Security has flown drones over the area, similar, apparently, to those used in Afghanistan. And some outfitters report seeing a small jet, similar to a private jet, patrolling at low altitudes.

"About a month ago, I was fishing on Basswood, and out of nowhere this jet came over me at about 500 feet, following the border,'' one said. "When it got up to U.S. Point, it turned sharply and came back.''

DNR enforcement director Jim Konrad said Thursday the money spent to fix up the cabin four years ago came out of his department's budget.

The work was done in part by the Minnesota Conservation Corps, a youth outdoor working group.

Asked whether anyone from the DNR used the cabin for reasons other than official duties, Konrad said no.

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