Why is the BWCA a wilderness and not a national park?
One of Jason Krogman's summer traditions as a teenager was as Minnesotan as flannel: He would join his father and family friends on fishing trips into the Boundary Waters.
Krogman, of Cottage Grove, remembered seeing signs during their journeys for the "Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness" as well as the "Boundary Waters Canoe Area." He's been thinking more about those signs lately as he reads stories that parallel the past about mining leases and the protection of the BWCA.
It inspired him to ask Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reader-powered reporting project: Why was the BWCA designated a wilderness managed by the U.S. Forest Service and not a national park managed by the National Park Service?
The simple answer is that the federal government created the Superior National Forest, which includes the Boundary Waters, more than a century ago to balance competing demands for industry, preservation and recreation in the Northland. And recreation was top of mind. Parts of the forest were carved out for primitive travel and exploration, and growing regulations over the years ensured it remained undeveloped.
The Boundary Waters sits directly next to a national park, Voyageurs. The National Park Service is committed to protecting public lands, too, but focuses on iconic, scenic sites — some more developed and geared to tourists. The Kabetogoma Peninsula and the waters of Rainy Lake in far northern Minnesota made a good fit, since they are steeped in history as a trade and travel route.
Creating a national forest
There would be no BWCA and its heralded million acres of pristine water and land without the Superior National Forest, established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909.
But Roosevelt didn't do it alone. In the early 1900s, Minnesota forestry commissioner Christopher C. Andrews encouraged the General Land Office — a U.S. agency that oversaw the survey and sale of public land — to preserve 641,000 acres of northern Minnesota border land from being sold. Canada was protection-minded, too, creating Quetico Provincial Park just over the border in Ontario during this period.
Portions of the Superior forest area were still in high demand for logging and mining in the early 20th century, so planners began identifying areas to set aside for recreation.
The idea of a canoe area first emerged in a Superior forest plan written by Forest Service landscape architect Arthur Carhart. The plan, which became a reality by 1921, called for building several roads into the region for access to what would be known as the "Superior Roadless Area."
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture William Jardine said the new Roadless Area was created "to conserve the value of the Superior National Forest as a game and fish country and as a national playground offering a virile and wholesome form of recreation off the beaten paths."
Development pressures brought about tighter federal protections in the years to come. In 1925, timber baron Edward Backus proposed building dams in the border lakes region near International Falls to produce electrical power for lumber and paper mills. But wilderness advocate Ernest Oberholtzer, who had paddled thousands of miles of the region, helped lead the charge against the plan.
"Minnesota's forest and lake region as it exists today is the greatest asset to that part of the state," Oberholtzer said in 1929, according to the Sauk Centre Herald. "It has a greater dollars and cents value in the tourist it brings than our mines and our agriculture in that section of the state."
Oberholtzer's efforts resulted in the creation of the Quetico-Superior Council, a joint U.S.-Canadian commission to manage the region. The panel helped pass the Shipstead-Nolan Act in 1930, which protected shorelines of lakes and streams from logging in the Superior National Forest.
Meanwhile, a debate emerged over where to establish a national park in Minnesota. In the 1950s and '60s, a suggestion to merely call the BWCA a national park caused friction between the Forest and National Park services. The Forest Service wanted no part of the idea, said Bob DeGross, current superintendent of Voyageurs National Park.
If anything, Oberholtzer and his allies, including writer and wilderness advocate Sigurd Olson, wanted to expand the national forest west in the name of preservation, according to various accounts of the region's evolution. Oberholtzer trusted the Forest Service's multiuse ethic, to balance its commitment to the timber industry while protecting wild areas suited for recreation.
As people became more mobile over the 20th century, travel to the border waters area increased. In 1958, the Forest Service changed the Superior Roadless Area to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Six years later, the Forest Service tacked "wilderness" onto the name under the protective powers of the Wilderness Act. The act gave "wilderness" legal cachet as a place "recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man." There are now more than 760 wilderness areas in the United States, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
In 1978, Congress passed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, which deepened environmental protections against logging and mining in the area and restricted motorboat and snowmobile use.
Different types of destinations
Voyageurs and its 220,000 acres of land and water were established by Congress as the country's 36th national park in 1975. Crane Lake is the southern entry to the park and western entry to the BWCA.
Barb Soderberg worked among Forest Service managers in the Superior National Forest for more than 35 years and retired as a public service team leader in 2007.
"What is now the BWCA has always been thought of as a wilderness area," Soderberg said. She said the scale of management needs of the wilderness and the different roles of the Park Service and Forest Service ultimately help explain the BWCA's wilderness status — right next to a national park like Voyageurs.
DeGross said Park Service holdings overall are smaller, many with widely recognizable features to draw crowds. At Voyageurs, houseboats and motorboats are main vehicles of exploration to the park's abundant islands and waterways. The BWCA is predominantly paddle-only but for a limited number of lakes that allow small motor use.
"There were those historical uses, like logging or types of recreation [in the BWCA], that wouldn't be compatible with the Park Service mission," Soderberg said.
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