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Boundary Waters Canoe Area: A Contentious History
By Leif Enger
July 17, 1998
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Twenty years ago, Congress passed the Boundary Waters Act. It formally declared wilderness status for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area - prohibiting logging, mining, and most motor use. The act brought protests from local residents who saw their livelihoods threatened; many in Ely still feel the law was shoved down their throats by an overzealous environmental movement. But the 1978 law was by no means the first fight over what to do with the Boundary Waters. Conservationists and developers have been at odds in this territory since the 1920s.

Zolt Damacos: We plan to go up north as far, I think, as Basswood Lake. Yeah. Paddle two days and stop at campsite. Paddle up the river, relax, come back.
ZOLT DAMACOS SAYS THERE'S NOTHING LIKE THIS BACK HOME in Hungary: a place with lakes so clean you can lean down and drink. Zolt is a four-trip veteran, one of 200,000 who will paddle into the Boundary Waters this summer.
Damacos: It's a place where people can really be out of time. You can hide yourself. There is no time here.
A canoeist gliding through the BWCA might see moose, loons, bear, beaver. What he won't see is clearcuts, mining trucks, roads, or resorts. All were here. All are gone. Tourists don't see the 60 years of environmental lobbying, the sometimes sneaky politics, or the painful cost of preservation. Canoe outfitter Bill Rom, long retired, remembers a wilderness fast going to ruin.
Rom: Resorts were popping up all over within the Boundary Waters. And back in the '20s they had proposed a road, right through the Boundary Waters, all the way to the Gunflint.
In fact, in 1923 developers wanted a road to every lake in the wilderness - a plan routed by the Izaak Walton League and emerging conservationists Sigurd Olson and Aldo Leopold. It was the first idea in what would become a half-century of incursions and retreats - an ebb and flow of noise and silence. Hydroelectric dams were proposed and defeated. Logging and mining - two basics of the local economy - were restricted. By the late '40s, says Bill Rom, even wilderness tourism was threatening the wilderness. A profusion of fly-in resorts had made Ely the busiest inland floatplane base in the world. When environmentalists fought for a ban on flights into the Boundary Waters, many locals were fed up with wilderness advocates like Sig Olson and Rom himself.
Rom: Sig? After the airban he was hung in effigy. They blockaded our street - logging trucks - so our customers couldn't get into the store. They picketed us. Signs saying, "Run the Bum Rom Out of Town." Here I'm a local, born and raised.
Mike Hillman: We don't use the word "environmentalist" here, OK? Because that kinda puts flags up.
Mike Hillman's family has been in Ely four generations - his great-grandparents were among the first miners to arrive, in the late 19th century. He remembers the Boundary Waters of the '50s and early '60s as a quiet place - after the airban - a place used mostly by those who lived on its edges.
Hillman: You gotta understand, in 1967 Ely was still a mining community; there were so few regular visitors. In 1968, Bill Rom went on a canoe trip. Argosy Magazine proclaimed him the Canoe King. All over America people read these magazines - you could come up on a canoe trip with no rules, stay as long as you want, you could get complete outfitting for $7 or $8, you could eat like a king, catch as many fish as you possibly wanted. They came by the thousands.
Suddenly, Hillman says, you could hardly find a campsite in the Boundary Waters. By the mid-70s, conservation groups were pushing for a new law - one to reduce motor access to the wilderness, prohibit mineral exploration, and end logging altogether. Again, Ely residents bridled at the prospect of restrictions from Washington. There were more effigy burnings - and this furious protest during a visit from pro-wilderness politicians, just before passage of the 1978 Boundary Waters Act.

Frank Salerno was Ely's mayor at the time. He says the Boundary Waters Act still frustrates him - not simply because of its restrictions, but because local residents had no voice in its passage. He says they were simply steamrolled by an autocratic - and well-funded - environmental lobby.

Salerno: They were beating us to death with dollar bills. I mean, to go to Hollywood, California, to people who are living in a fantasy world, and tell 'em, "My God, you've got to help us save the wilderness in Minnesota," and have the Robert Redfords and others write checks and have fundraisers and everything else, and they didn't know the first thing about Minnesota or what's going on here - their well, it doesn't run dry.
Paul Smith: Ah, see the nest there? There's eggshells in there now, so we may see the young around, if they survived.
Retired U.S. Forest Service officer Paul Smith is out this afternoon checking a loon nest near his home on the edge of the BWCA. It was his job to help enforce the new regulations - to confront those who'd motored in illegally or paddled in without a permit. Though many locals hated the new law, Smith says they were consistently treated unfairly in media reports - characterized as sixpack bumpkins anxious to wreck the wilderness.
Smith:You know, Ely's only 100 years old. People did what they wanted to do. They worked hard - in the mines, logging. They drank hard. They lived hard. It was a hard life. A lot of them came from the old country, where they were suppressed. They'd had enough of that. We all rebel when we get to a certain point: "Hey, we've had enough of your regulations and rules" - ah, there's the loon, with a young one!
Rebellion or not, the Boundary Waters Act brought change: the government bought out resorts within the wilderness. It ended logging, phased out snowmobiling, and reduced motor access. It threw a curve at outfitters like Gary Gottschnik, who supplied motorboats and snowmachines for a living.
Gottschnik: It was like chopping your arms off when it happened - boom, you couldn't do it anymore. I'd been doing it so many years; my father had done it his whole life. We had to find a new customer base.
But Gottschnick found his new customer base, and gradually, much of Ely has done the same. The BWCA is now one of the most popular wilderness areas in the country. Northwest Airlines flies daily all summer between Ely and the Twin Cities - so you can get on a plane in Miami in the morning and be fighting the deerflies by sundown. Or shopping for mukluks; or drinking cappucino; or buying up real estate. Some tourists forego the Boundary Waters altogether and just stay at the new Holiday Inn.

All this growth, some say, has taken the sting from the 1978 law that created the BWCA Wilderness - though there are still regular flareups about motor regulations, or how many canoeists should be allowed in one group. The bigger problem locally has become how to handle the new prosperity. How to grow wisely. Ely historian Mike Hillman says most people here have come to understand they can't go back - but it doesn't hurt to wish.

Hillman: Some people, they believe a polka ghost-dance prophet will be coming here. And that if they close the curtains on the bar, and if they religiously and fervently dance all night long, that come the morning they'll open the curtains, and everyone will be gone, and it will be 1957 again.