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It is a conflict of immense bitterness, a classic battle that combines the fanaticism of a religious war with the deep and indelible passions of an ancient feud between families. It is a controversy with roots that reach back 100 years and, some think, might well continue for another 100. The fight is over a million acres of land that are among the most beautiful on the planet—the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a lake-dotted wilderness along the Minnesota-Canada border. Among its treasures are the famous Ely Greenstone, one of the oldest rocks on earth, having been formed 2.75 billion years ago, and some of the world's most majestic stands of red pine, some of which were seedlings in the 16th century, years before the doughty voyageurs canoed through the area.
The dispute is over the future of this land: Will it be a wilderness protected against incursion by commerce? Or will huge tracts of it be permanently open to all manner of activity—logging and logging roads and God only knows what forms of motorized mass recreation?
There is anger and intransigence on both sides, harsh accusations and huge exaggerations. Yet there can be no doubt that this is a critical point in the history of the Boundary Waters wilderness. Sigurd Olson, 78, the author-guru of the Minnesota north woods, puts it this way: "I have been in this fight since I was a very young man, and others were in it long before me. If we lose now, if the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is dismembered, we will never get it back. This is it. The issues have never been so clearly cut before: do we want to dismantle this wilderness or is it precious enough to save? That is the crux of it."
True enough. But though the issues may be clear and the crux plain to see, the resolution of the controversy is by no means easy to predict. Last week the fate of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, of its lakes, its Greenstone, its red pine, its bald eagles, timber wolves and beavers was bound up in the intricate machinery of the U.S. Congress—held hostage, as it were, to politics.
This is nothing new, for over the years the BWCA has come to be as much an appendage of politics as the defense budget or the interstate highway system. There may be no other section of wilderness in America that has been more frequently threatened with various forms of damage or destruction—and that has been more consistently rescued by the enlightened acts of politicians. Indeed, the current status of the BWCA is no more than a logical—perhaps even inevitable—extension of its history as a political by-product.
At the turn of the 20th century, this region included one of the last large areas of true wilderness in the U.S. In 1902 a farseeing Minnesota forestry commissioner named C. C. Andrews persuaded the U.S. Land Office to set aside as public domain vast tracts of it. In 1909 Teddy Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamation 848 making the area—1,019,000 acres—part of the national forest system. In 1926 Secretary of Agriculture William Jardine, who was an otherwise all but anonymous public servant, issued an executive order designating it a "wilderness area," thereby excluding roads from 1,000 square miles of the best canoe country anywhere. Nevertheless, the notorious timber baron E. W. Backus declared he was going to begin large-scale logging in the area and, more than that, he planned to build a series of hydroelectric dams in the hitherto pristine chain of lakes along the border. After a bitter fight in Congress, a bill was passed that blocked all of Backus' schemes. In the late 1940s there was another threat to the region: bush pilots began regularly flying fishermen to lakes deep inside the forest. A thriving resort industry burgeoned. Sigurd Olson, among others, protested that the wilderness was becoming polluted, ruined by these squads of flying fishermen.
In 1948 Congress passed an act allowing the government to buy up and destroy the resorts. The following year Harry Truman was persuaded to sign an executive order that banned all flights into the BWCA. Steadily over the years there have been various executive orders, acts of Congress and lawsuits that tightly controlled lumbering in the area, limited the use of motorboats and reduced and ultimately forbade mining. In 1973 a federal court issued an injunction against all logging until an environmental impact study could be made. The injunction was overturned last year, but the logging companies agreed to a temporary moratorium. In 1976 the Secretary of Agriculture issued an order banning all snowmobiles, which were originally allowed in as "winterized motorboats."
By and large, the wilderness has been well served by politics and public officials. However, at one point in 1964 the BWCA became the subject of a legislative compromise, and all the troubles of today rise from that compromise. When Congress passed the 1964 Wilderness Act—a tough law stating that any areas designated as wilderness were to be off limits to anything mechanized and to any kind of commerce—a last-minute loophole removed the BWCA from full protection.
It continued to suffer incursions that other designated wildernesses did not, and its status became ambiguous. The current conflict has to do with clarifying that status once and for all. That is what proposed legislation in Congress is attempting to resolve.
Two contending bills have been written, almost exactly opposite in their substance, by two Congressmen from Minnesota. James L. Oberstar, of the congressional district that includes the BWCA, drafted a bill that would transfer 319,000 acres into a National Recreation Area, for multiple use, open to logging and motors. Although the other 700,000 acres would remain a designated wilderness, tranquil and untouched, the huge bite the Oberstar bill would take for motors and logging could open up a wedge for further commercialization, and this is what has enraged environmentalists so much. They prevailed upon an interested Congressman, Donald Fraser of Minneapolis, to draft some opposing legislation—a bill that flatly defined the entire million-plus acres, plus several new tracts, as wilderness, all to be absolutely free of motors, commerce and development. The two bills were submitted to the Interior Committee of the House and wound up in the Subcommittee on National Parks and Insular Affairs.