Building Coalition on Spirit Mountain
Written with Input from Cathy Podeszwa
and Tim Larson of the Duluth Audubon Society, Nancy
Nelson of the Skyline Planning and Preservation
Alliance, and Jennifer Tahtinen of EAGLE.
The Spirit Mountain northern hardwood forest is located
on the uplands of the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area
on the western edge of Duluth, Minnesota, overlooking
western Lake Superior and the mouth of the St. Louis River.
Although the forest has remained relatively undisturbed
over the years, it is now at the heart of an intense struggle
between those wishing to preserve it, and those seeking
to turn it into a golf course and hotel. The history of
this struggle is complicated, and while the issue has
not yet been resolved it is an incredible story of what
is possible with the building of a coalition of local
grassroots conservation groups and citizens.
There has been an outpouring of protest from citizens
of Duluth and people across the Great Lakes region from
the time the golf course/hotel project was proposed in
1996. The support gained from joining forces has provided
much of the momentum necessary to maintain the struggle.
The arguments to protect Spirit Mountain have effectively
come in three waves: first, the site has extremely high
ecological value; second, the proposed development is
in conflict with federal regulations; and third, the site
is sacred in Native American culture.
The proposed development site contains old growth hardwoods,
many small wetlands, and a branch of a designated urban
trout stream, Stewart Creek. It is feared that if developers
are allowed to move forward much of the forest will be
destroyed and wetlands will be significantly altered.
There is also concern about the potential for increased
runoff from the site, which could carry sediment and chemicals
from the golf course directly into Stewart Creek, seriously
degrading (and quite possibly destroying) this prime trout
Trying to get the City of Duluth and the Spirit Mountain
Authority to recognize the ecological value of Spirit
Mountain has been an uphill struggle. Environmentalists
feel that proponents of the development have repeatedly
tried to overlook applicable environmental regulations.
Citizens were forced to submit a petition to have an Environmental
Assessment Worksheet (EAW) completed, even though it was
clear from the state environmental review rules that the
EAW was mandatory. When the EAW was finally prepared,
despite the testimony of Department of Natural Resource
staff, professional geologists, hydrologists, and ecologists
attesting to the significant environmental impacts on
water and forest resources that development would have,
the governmental unit decided not to conduct an Environmental
Impact Statement (EIS), which would have specifically
examined the environmental impact of the project and what
would be lost.
In response to this decision, the Gitche Gumee Chapter
of Trout Unlimited, Inc., the W.J. McCabe Chapter of the
Izaak Walton League of America, Inc., the Minnesota Center
for Environmental Advocacy, and Nancy Nelson and Terry
Brown (representing the West Skyline Planning and Preservation
Alliance) filed a lawsuit challenging that the decision
that no EIS was needed was arbitrary and capricious. Many
other groups, although not actual parties to the lawsuit,
provided support and funding. Unfortunately, the court
decided not to overturn the decision not to conduct an
EIS. Although this was a huge disappointment, the lawsuit
did help to increase the public awareness and interest
in the issues.
Without an EIS, concerned citizens gathered, in an effort
to both document and demonstrate the environmental impact
of the project themselves. Groups addressed the press
and the City Council on issues in their areas of expertise.
For example, the Duluth Audubon Society spoke about impacts
to birds, the Izaak Walton League spoke about impacts
to trout streams, and the Sierra Club spoke about impacts
to the forest.
Groups also conducted environmental surveys of the area.
Both the Environmental Association for Great Lakes Education
(EAGLE) and the Duluth Audubon Society applied to GLAHNF
and received grants to assist them in conducting ecological
surveys. EAGLE conducted a rare plant survey and noted
several rare plant species on the site, and Duluth Audubon
conducted a breeding bird census on the site, observing
a total of 46 bird species, 35 of which were thought to
be nesting within the count area.
One of the strongest legal arguments against the destruction
of the forest comes from an overlooked clause in a decades-old
grant agreement. Activists, with the help of several City
Council members sympathetic to the struggle, discovered
and made public the fact that the City of Duluth had received
money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LAWCON)
in the 1970’s to construct the Spirit Mountain Recreation
Area under the condition that the land be maintained for
public outdoor recreational use forever. The Minnesota
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has said that a
privately owned hotel in the Spirit Mountain Recreation
Area would violate LAWCON rules.
Exposing the LAWCON conflict was a crucial step in the
effort to save Spirit Mountain and is a testament to the
commitment by many in the environmental community to look
at every aspect of the issue in order to find any regulatory
violations. The issues involving the LAWCON have become
one of the main legal obstacles for the developers, as
the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed not to process
the developers’ 404 permit application until the LAWCON
issues are resolved. The Corps of Engineers wetland alteration
permit demands review under Section 404 of the Clean Water
Act requiring, among other things, a review under Section
106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Section
106 includes investigation into the area’s historical,
cultural, and spiritual significance to Native Americans.
The third major piece in the argument to protect the
forest is its spiritual significance to the Anishinabe
people. Spirit Mountain is one of seven sacred sites along
the migration route of the ancestral Anishinabe to the
Great Lakes from the Atlantic Ocean. As the struggle has
continued, more and more Anishinabe have attended public
meetings to voice their opposition to the destruction
of Spirit Mountain and to bring attention to the mountain
as a sacred site. In the late 1990’s CJ Bird and Warner
Wirta, Native American activists, became involved, helping
to organize tribal opposition to the proposed development.
Tribes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario have now passed
resolutions affirming the sacred site as a place for ceremonies
and the site of ancestral burial grounds.
During the Migration Journey, a walk retracing the Anishinabe
people’s ancestral western migration route, the walkers
stopped at Spirit Mountain where they held public meetings,
press conferences, and sacred ceremonies helping to highlight
the effort to save Spirit Mountain. In a separate effort
to draw attention to the sacred significance of the Mountain,
Winona LaDuke, a nationally recognized Native American
activist came to Duluth to speak at a city council meeting
in the summer of 2002.
Public opposition to the golf course/hotel has grown
steadily as the ecological, spiritual, and legal reasons
in favor of protecting the forest have continued to come
to light. Activists in Duluth have continued to emphasize
that the forest is worth saving because of its intrinsic
ecological value and its spiritual value to the Anishinabe
people. The groups have tried to emphasize that they are
not opposed to all golf courses, but are instead opposed
to a golf course in this ecologically, culturally and
aesthetically unique location.
This issue has united many in the environmental community
and drawn concerned citizens to city council meetings.
Without public opposition the golf course would most likely
have been built years ago. The numbers of people that
have attended and spoken at city council meetings has
helped to demonstrate to the councilors the value the
people of Duluth place on the old growth forest of Spirit
Mountain. Cooperation among the groups involved in this
struggle has helped to keep the public involved in the
effort to protect Spirit Mountain.
The support of the coalition of concerned individuals
and organizations has been essential. While the effort
to save Spirit Mountain has been draining on the individuals
working to protect this important resource, having others
to help with the extended struggle has been key to maintaining
momentum. Duluth’s environmental community, the Anishinabe
people, and other concerned citizens have not yet won
the fight to save Spirit Mountain, but through their combined
efforts they have been effective in bringing environmental,
legal and spiritual issues to the forefront, thereby increasing
public awareness and efforts to preserve this important