Protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Minnesotans are fortunate enough to have an international treasure in their backyard and many citizens are fighting to ensure its protection into the future.The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is the most popular wilderness area in the country, its 1,100 lakes span over a million acres and provide some of the best paddling in the world.

The Boundary Waters was declared a fully protected federal wilderness area in 1978. The BWCAW Wilderness Act of 1978 provides for the “protection, enhancement, and preservation of the natural values of the lakes, waterways, and associated forested areas” of the designated area. As a result, under federal mandate, activities in the area are restricted in order to maintain the BWCAW’s relatively pristine nature. There are restrictions on the number of people allowed into the Boundary Waters, as well as restrictions on logging activities, motorized vehicles, and the types of materials allowed (glass, aluminum and tin are not permitted within the confines of the BWCAW). These restrictions serve to keep the BWCAW a place “untrammeled by man.”

Keeping the Boundary Waters a protected area has been a challenge, as logging, timber, and development interests challenge the protections. Fire suppression and loss of native species are also a major threat to the area’s ecosystem. As a result, the grassroots organization Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (Friends) formed to fight for the continued protection and enhancement of the BWCAW and Quetico, its adjoining park in Ontario. The Friends are based in Minneapolis and have 3,000 members working to preserve this amazing area.

The Friends have worked for decades to make sure a wilderness-oriented voice is heard in legislation and policy debates. They also raise funds to acquire lands surrounding the Boundary Waters, hoping to protect and expand the wilderness area. They fight the building of roads, recognizing the development threats that arise once more roads are built. In the last few months the future of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has come into question. As a result the Friends have raised their collective voice in opposition to proposals, which would weaken protections and would allow the selling off of parcels of land. The Friends are advocating for the expansion of the BWCAW instead.

In May, a bill went through the House containing an amendment that would have auctioned off pieces of BWCAW land to raise funds for the state. The Friends launched a campaign against the proposed “auctioning” of land, calling on the citizens of Minnesota to voice their opinions and support for the protection of the BWCAW. Their efforts resulted in a massive public outcry against selling BWCAW lands. The Friends were successful and the BWCAW language was removed from the bill.

Further, in early June, Governor Tim Pawlenty signed into law legislation that extends state protections to thousands of acres of state-owned land within the Boundary Waters. The 18,000 acres that are now protected from permanent dwellings, motorized vehicles and roads make-up the first area in Minnesota to receive state-issued wilderness protection. The Friends were happy with the legislation and are glad that the state has become a partner in managing an area treasured by so many Minnesotans. Friends’ Executive Director, Melissa Lindsay, said, “In spite of this law’s signing, there clearly are a group of organized and powerful interests that want to undermine the beauty and protection of the Boundary Waters. We will continue to call upon all Minnesotans to protect our wild places.”

True to their words, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness have proposed the addition of 90,000 acres to the BWCAW. In an 18-month study of 120,000 acres in the Superior National Forest, the group identified the parcels of land that are among the last wild and roadless places in the state of Minnesota.The study was funded by a variety of businesses and foundations and was supported by a coalition of nonprofit organizations across Minnesota.

Officials are currently in the process of revising the 15-year management plan of the Superior National Forest, which is adjacent to the BWCAW, and the Forest Service has made public that their preferred option is not to add more land to the wilderness. However, that outlook could change based on public comments now being received, and the supervisor of the Forest has lauded the report, saying that “it constitutes the kind of substantial information that is just what we’re looking for.” The fight to keep protections in place for the BWCAW will be a never-ending battle for Minnesotans, ensuring that the places we enjoy today are here for future generations.


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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.