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.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.


Oakland - LP: D. Otero 8 FINAL
Kansas City - WP: J. Frasor 9
Minnesota 10/2/14 7:25 PM
Green Bay
Buffalo 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Chicago 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Cleveland 10/5/14 12:00 PM
St. Louis 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Atlanta 10/5/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Tampa Bay 10/5/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Houston 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Arizona 10/5/14 3:05 PM
Kansas City 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
NY Jets 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Diego
Cincinnati 10/5/14 7:30 PM
New England
Seattle 10/6/14 7:30 PM
NY Islanders 5 FINAL
Boston 3
NY Rangers 2 FINAL
Philadelphia 4
Ottawa 1 FINAL
Winnipeg 2
Carolina 1 FINAL
St. Louis 3
Tampa Bay 5 FINAL
Dallas 1
Colorado 0 FINAL
Calgary 2
Los Angeles 4 FINAL
San Jose 1
Fla Atlantic 10/2/14 6:00 PM
UCF 10/2/14 6:00 PM
Arizona 10/2/14 9:30 PM
(2) Oregon
Louisville 10/3/14 6:00 PM
San Diego St 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Utah State 10/3/14 9:15 PM
(18) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(12) Miss State
Ball State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Iowa State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(21) Oklahoma State
Marshall 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Old Dominion
Southern Miss 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
(20) Ohio State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Purdue 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Florida 10/4/14 11:00 AM
SMU 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(22) East Carolina
Virginia Tech 10/4/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Eastern Mich 10/4/14 1:00 PM
North Texas 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Massachusetts 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Tulsa 10/4/14 2:00 PM
Colorado State
New Mexico 10/4/14 2:30 PM
TX-San Antonio
(3) Alabama 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(11) Ole Miss
(14) Stanford 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(9) Notre Dame
(17) Wisconsin 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Navy 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
(7) Baylor 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(4) Oklahoma 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(25) TCU
Wake Forest 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
NC State 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Bowling Green
Ohio U 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Central Mich
Oregon State 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Vanderbilt 10/4/14 3:00 PM
(13) Georgia
Kansas 10/4/14 3:00 PM
West Virginia
Kent State 10/4/14 4:00 PM
Northern Ill
South Alabama 10/4/14 5:00 PM
Appalachian St
Texas-El Paso 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
(15) LSU 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
UAB 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Ky
Texas Tech 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(23) Kansas State
Michigan 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Hawaii 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Toledo 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Mich
ULM 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Georgia State 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Idaho 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Texas State
Memphis 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arizona State 10/4/14 6:30 PM
(16) USC
So Carolina 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Pittsburgh 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Miami-Florida 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Georgia Tech
(19) Nebraska 10/4/14 7:00 PM
(10) Michigan State
UNLV 10/4/14 7:00 PM
San Jose St
Ga Southern 10/4/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Utah 10/4/14 9:30 PM
(8) UCLA
Boise State 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Winnipeg 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Calgary 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Edmonton 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Brt Columbia 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question