A legacy of wisdom on burning in the BWCA

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2011 - 11:04 PM

A Forest Service ecologist instrumental in the BWCA's wilderness designation was prescient on prescribed burning.


In the 1970s, Miron “Bud” Heinselman disagreed with the Forest Service’s suppression fire management policy widely in effect then, in which most forest fires were extinguished as quickly as possible. Since then, the Forest Service has changed its strategy, viewing fires as necessary for forest regeneration.

On July 8, 1977, in Ely, the famed author and wilderness advocate Sigurd Olson was hung in effigy. The event was a congressional field hearing on pending BWCA wilderness designation. At the time, I was editor of a weekly newspaper in Ely.

Olson would tell me later he didn't take the slight personally; that he understood his efforts to expand the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and rid it of snowmobiles, outboard motors and loggers rubbed his fellow Ely residents wrong. It went with the turf, he said.

Olson's likeness wasn't the only one swinging that day. Miron "Bud'' Heinselman's name also was tacked to the lynched dummy. A longtime Forest Service ecologist and researcher who had retired from the agency in 1974 (and died in 1993), Heinselman was in lockstep with Olson (1899-1982) regarding how the BWCA should be managed.

It was Heinselman's extensive research of the boundary waters ecosystem -- particularly its evolution by fire -- that helped form the foundation of Olson's and other wilderness advocates' envisioned management of the BWCA.

Olson's spirit still overhangs the Boundary Waters. But Heinselman's visage is there, too, particularly in the smoke that rises from the still-smoldering Pagami Creek fire -- just as it has hung over hundreds of other Boundary Waters forest fires started by lightning. And tens of thousands of forest fires nationwide.

Some history:

• 1965: The Forest Service instituted a management plan that divided the BWCA into a 600,000-acre Interior Zone closed to logging and a Portal Zone of 400,000 acres, where logging was allowed.

• 1972: a student group sued to require an environmental impact statement before the Forest Service allowed logging of BWCA old-growth forest.

• 1973: Canada's Quetico Provincial Park was given full wilderness protection, with logging banned -- foretelling the coming effort among U.S. wilderness advocates seeking BWCA protection.

• 1975: U.S. Judge Miles Lord banned logging of old-growth forests in the BWCA -- a ruling later reversed. Also in 1975, Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., introduced a bill establishing a BWCA wilderness of 625,000 acres and a BWCA recreation area of 527,000 acres, in which logging would be permitted.

• 1976: Friends of the Boundary Waters was formed with Heinselman as chair, in part to oppose Oberstar's bill and to push for full BWCA protection.

• 1978: The current law governing the BWCA as a wilderness was signed by President Jimmy Carter, expanding the area by 50,000 acres, phasing out most motorized travel and ending nearly a century of logging in large tracts of the area.

Rewind now to the late 1940s, when Heinselman began to intensely study and map the history, severity and density of northeast Minnesota wildfires.

Had Heinselman only been a scientist, and not also a lifelong BWCA paddler, his work might not have resonated so broadly. But he knew the BWCA firsthand, and through his travels and studies (in the BWCA he bored an endless number of trees to count rings and look for fire scars), determined that about half the area's forest hadn't been logged, but had evolved through periodic regeneration by fire.

If that were true, Heinselman reasoned, and if the area ultimately were to be managed as a wilderness, where logging would be banned, the Forest Service's "suppression'' fire management policy widely in effect then -- in which most forest fires were extinguished as quickly as possible -- would have to change.

Prescribed burns also might be necessary in red pine stands going forward, Heinselman said. The Forest Service disagreed, leading to Heinselman's disillusionment with the agency and early retirement.

Also frustrating to Heinselman was the high, subsidized cost of BWCA logging: The Forest Service received about $50 stumpage per acre, but paid about $100 to have it regenerated, and then not very successfully.

At his cabin on Burntside Lake just outside Ely, in the year leading up to the 1977 congressional hearing in the same town, Heinselman, with his wife, Fran, on many days spread maps on his kitchen table and explained to me what I'm writing about now. At his home, Olson, with his wife, Elizabeth, (who took more personally the hometown attacks on her husband than he did), did the same.

Now Heinselman and Olson are gone. The BWCA generally is managed as a wilderness. And the Forest Service, in a change of strategy, includes wildfires as inevitable and, ultimately, necessary for forest regeneration -- a plan that might warrant further alterations in a warming climate and/or if forest fuel loads build dangerously.

The Pagami Creek blaze took some unpredictable turns and got away from the Forest Service for a while in a big and costly way. Perhaps Forest Service fire incident commanders made some mistakes, perhaps not. Time will tell.

What's known is that every time a fire in the BWCA is allowed to seek its own end, rather than to be put out immediately, the forest renews itself little by little.

And somewhere, Bud Heinselman smiles.

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