Beauty and the BWCAW Act
Cook County News-Herald
Twenty-five years ago on Oct. 21, President Jimmy Carter
signed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Bill.
It was reported as a compromise bill in the Oct. 19, 1978
issue of the Cook County News-Herald. Supported by Minnesota
Senator Wendell Anderson, the bill passed through the
U.S. Senate with unanimous approval. The House reception
was not as warm, with Minnesota Representative Jim Oberstar
casting the lone no vote from his state’s delegation.
Ely attorney Ron Walls, representing multiple use concerns,
and Charles Dayton, representing environmentalists, crafted
the compromise bill. Nevertheless, the News-Herald front
page story which ran two days before President Carter’s
signing foreshadowed the bitterness which has hung like
a pall over the wilderness for the past quarter century:
Members of the Boundary Waters Conservation Alliance
in both Ely and Grand Marais were angered and disappointed
in passage of the measure by the House on Saturday and
the concurrent action by the Senate on Sunday.
The alliance has been especially angered over Anderson’s
sponsorship of the bill, and Alliance member Bruce Kerfoot
of Grand Marais estimated that about 200 jobs would have
to be found in Cook County to compensate for the effects
of the House-Senate passed measure.
Of particular concern in the compromise were issues of
motor access by boat and snowmobile to the BWCAW. Motors
on boats had been allowed on 62 percent of the BWCAW’s
water surface, but would be systematically reduced to
just 25 percent access. Snowmobile trails into the wilderness
would number only two. Mining and logging would be totally
As a sweetener to this bitter bill, authors also called
for spending money on enhancement of motorized access
trails outside the wilderness. A pretty bare bone, it
was better than nothing. Unfortunately, with ever-shrinking
federal appropriations to the Forest Service, nothing
appears to be what multiple use advocates have gotten.
Insult added to injury is a fair description of this outcome.
Even those who decry any motor use within hearing distance
of wilderness must agree that it is better to make no
promise at all than to make one in bad faith.
In the past week, city newspapers have noted the BWCAW
25th anniversary and expounded upon the meaning of it
all at some length. Some reminisced about the hanging
of Sigurd Olson in effigy in Ely. Others waxed poetic
about the forest primeval, which the BWCAW is not, having
been chopped down and burned up plenty of times prior
to 1978. And still others made light of the job loss in
timbering, declaring that tourism was the salvation of
a pioneer society saved from extinction by wiser heads.
There can be no question that the BWCAW, like Lake Superior,
is a cornerstone of this economy. It is also a bone of
contention among neighbors and would-be friends in this
community. The compromise bill that birthed the BWCAW
act of 1978 is still seen as a bargain with the devil
by many - even some who have profited handsomely solely
because the wilderness is protected so well. There are
an equal number of people, however, who see the BWCAW
bill as akin to the Holy Grail.
Each side - multiple use and enviros - will go to their
graves believing they are right about the 1978 bill. Justine
Kerfoot, News-Herald Gunflint Trail columnist at the time
of the bill’s passage, looked at the whole shebang as
"a cozy affair" where Sen. Anderson backed the
compromise to avoid the wrath of enviros, and momentum
snatched opportunity away from anyone against the bill.
"As the final days of this Congress approaches,
in order to clear the decks, bills were passed with the
speed of shoveling paper in a barrel. It is in this way
that our destinies are determined on many issues,"
Kerfoot wrote. Then she went on... "The tamarack
are now a vivid yellow and will soon lose their needles.
Temperatures have dropped as low as 16 degrees and smatterings
of snow have come and gone."
In the same way, have the 25 years since the passage
of the BWCAW bill come and gone. To our credit, we have
preserved the beauty of our inheritance through this act.
We have also preserved hard feelings and bitterness. It
would be easy to say it is time to move on and ‘get over
it.’ But easy is almost always the wrong way to go.
In honor of this 25th year, we call for renewed efforts
to truly reach community consensus on this treasured land,
the BWCAW. Keeping promises would be a good place to start.
We don’t all have to like what was promised, much less
approve of it. However, it is fairly certain that the
resulting harmony between neighbors will be music to all