Listen: Boundary Waters

On this Mainstreet Radio program, MPR’s Leif Enger reports on the attempts for a truce on the border of the BWCA since the 1978 Boundary Waters Wilderness Act.

The progam includes numerous interviews with local Ely residents who discuss the ecomonic impact the 1978 Boundary Waters Wilderness Act, and individuals of the environmental community on the fight to preserve the BWCA.


(00:00:13) Its a bright cool afternoon on South Moose Lake in the middle of Boundary Waters territory Rocky Islands Rise Up from the water covered with straight Green Pines pointing High the water is pure enough to drink and the air is still it's quiet here now, but back in town back in Ely were the BWC A wilderness Act was first fought Then resented it hasn't been quiet since 78. In the lobby of the motel Ely owner Bob Ellis sits waiting for customers on the street outside a steady stream of cars heads North many with canoes strapped on top. None of them are stopping here.
(00:00:59) Well, we see melee now is canoes that come with everything on their own. They come here and they can take a trip into me leave here.
(00:01:09) Ellis wasn't always in the motel business. He used to own the snowbank Beach Resort on a lake adjoining the BWC a the federal government bought out most of those Resorts after 1978 Ellis keeps an old photo of snowbank Beach on the lobby wall.
(00:01:24) Well, it shows the Waterfront. This is all sand beach in front of the main Lodge building this main Lodge building had 10 bedrooms upstairs the knows the kitchen and the back. here office They burned it down
(00:01:40) Ellis was paid for $175,000 for his Resort. It was among the first of 27 bought out by the federal government and effort that so far cost more than nine million dollars most of them like snowbank Beach were removed or destroyed. There are five hundred fewer beds for rent in the Ely area than there were a decade ago. We've lost her tour Street per
(00:02:02) say I'm talking about the push to spend money in Ely. When Resorts went out and all our cabins and accommodations, we don't get those people here anymore. The big money towards is
(00:02:15) gone. Dr. Jack Gray Hawk has been ely's mayor for 25 of his 77 years. He's seen the town lose more than a thousand residents about 20% of the population since 1980. He says the BWC a active 78 played a big role in that decline
(00:02:33) economically. It was a disaster for us. Our businesses are are surviving the best they can they make a little money during the summer with the little in flux. They die in the winter. I'd like to promote winter recreation in this area, but The minute to Jude start something why immediately you're jeopardizing the the Wilderness you're destroying the Wilderness. So, where do you go? What do you do
(00:03:04) graphic and the town's Business Leaders don't blame all ely's economic tribulations on the 78th law some say it was only the beginning of a troubled slide that hit bottom in 1985 when the closing of the reserve mining plant at nearby Babbitt left some 600 local residents jobless, but the legislation Change lives and livelihoods in the tourism industry and elsewhere. Norm kinds is 60 years old robust white-bearded a logger all his life until 1978. He and his brothers Leo and re-employed 30 full-time workers here at the kinds Logging Company Sawmill just outside of Ely.
(00:03:43) I lost about a half a million dollars we had accumulated. quite a bit property and equipment and when you finally got rid of it, we auctioned it off piece by piece and I think we come up with about $65,000. This building we're standing in here now. Probably I don't know must have been a hundred million feet longer than through here. planar set right here lots of noise around here for many years
(00:04:25) the loss of The Boundary Waters area to loggers meant kinds and the others had to go elsewhere for Timber and pay more for it the kinds brothers and another local Sawmill went out of business. And while the law did provide money to plant seedlings Andre Forest lands just outside the BWC a those were long-term effort for now kinds and his wife support themselves by running a bait and tackle place during the summer months in the offseason. It's back to logging now is a Hired
(00:04:52) Hand I go to work in the woods. and for where he however I can get a job and it's a whole lot different than running your own operation, but I gotta buy groceries, but we haven't owned the car for I don't know for five years. I guess Bonnie water wasn't too good to me. So far
(00:05:16) the BWC a has been a battlefield now for nearly 60 years simply put the fight has been between environmentalists who wanted a pristine Wilderness and local residents who depended on motorboats chainsaws and access for their The hoods and Recreation the battle came to a head 10 years ago when a bill tightening restrictions in the BWC a was debated in Congress and at home locals protested on the lawn of the u.s. Forest service shut down the entry points to the BWC a and turned one visit by Pro Wilderness politicians into a near riot. Less than a month later Congress approved a law forbidding motor use in nearly all the BWC a Roger Baker is District Ranger for the u.s. Forest service in Ely
(00:06:09) if you can run into a boat and say what do you think about 78 legislation wasn't harmful or beneficial? You would probably get large majority saying never should have had it. It was detrimental but that all depends on where you draw your line of where your vote take that same vote in the cities. You get a you could get a totally different boat.
(00:06:32) Well motor restrictions aren't popular with most local residents Baker says the sheer numbers of canoeist who arrived from around the country make the BWC a one of the most popular Wilderness areas in the United States since the early 70s about a hundred sixty thousand people have visited annually last year. The number jumped to a hundred eighty
(00:06:51) thousand gone too far. Is there a mile post or anything that we should be looking for?
(00:06:58) Joe and Jane sandor from Rochester Minnesota are at the forest service office in Ely finalizing the route for their weekend canoe trip. They were newlyweds on their last trip 10 years ago this time. They're three kids are along
(00:07:12) one time once in the country experienced. I think you can go anywhere and compete with motorized boats if you want, but there are a few areas that you can really get back and it's strictly Manpower canoeing.
(00:07:28) But not everyone heading for the Boundary Waters canoe area wants to paddle a canoe Steve Allen of Lisle, Illinois says the law provides plenty of room for both paddle and motor
(00:07:39) enthusiasts. I've gone up into the areas where they don't allow boats and taking the canoe trips. And you know, if you want that then you go up a little further north up into the more remote areas. We went for a whole week and we only saw people two days, you know, so if you want that you go there if you want to come down just relax and have a boat the motor to push you around. And he's some fish and happen different spots. Well, then they got that for you, too. Alan is paying six
(00:08:08) dollars to have his rig loaded up on a trailer and hauled over the half-mile winding Gravel Road that separates sucker Lake from Basswood a sprawling border Lake. This is Prairie Portage one of five mechanical portage's in The Boundary Waters the 78 legislation called for their removal by 1984 and fan on mechanized method of moving the boats can be found environmentalists now threatening to sue the forest service insist boats can be pulled and pushed across the Portage by hand with the Of a two-wheeled trailer Jeep letter L who runs Prairie Portage has a different story. It's in 79 the
(00:08:44) three people. Let's wield the Portage. I've hauled two of them back after they wield the hill they will then hear downhill and I haul them back out of here to transport boats across the Portage. You got to be strong not a husband and wife are the people that use in the today would be completely shut out of here.
(00:09:07) Letter L says too much of the BWC a has already been closed off to motor traffic. He was one of a number of Ely i'ts that flew to Washington to testify against the 78 legislation. He says the locals didn't get a fair shake.
(00:09:21) Well, I feel bitter that we went through all the motions and spent a lot of money and we were beat before we started we never had a chance. When people from somewhere else can that's never been here and don't know the problems or understand the logistics of really what goes on to tell people that are real knowledgeable. I think that's really wrong when you get a community that lives near a big. Womanís area they develop a proprietary view of the resource. They develop a view that they own it and they know what's best for it in the forest and the BWC a is in fact a national resource
(00:10:09) the walls of Brian O'Neill's Law Office are decorated with photographs and artwork of the Canoe Country. He's spent many years defending they provide a sharp contrast to the view from his 20 second story window in downtown,
(00:10:22) Minneapolis. These are videotapes people crossing the portage's
(00:10:27) O'Neill has filled some 40 file drawers during his 11 year legal battle on behalf of Minnesota
(00:10:32) environmentalists. The Minnesota environmentalists are the best environmental litigators in the country. They had people who would take years out of their lives to go and live in Washington DC and Lobby for the passage of the
(00:10:47) act one of those people was Bud. Heinzelman a forest ecologist who took an early retirement from his forest service job in part to devote more time to the BWC a
(00:10:57) fight. We were there just living in a two-by-four room in a hotel trying to work with the Congress to get this legislation through it was a nip and Tuck to fight for Years. We just didn't know and we very nearly failed, you know, the bill passed the last day of the Congress in 1978 and my wife and I were sitting in the gallery and we were so amazed and pleased when it finally happened that we both shed tears
(00:11:27) heinzelmann now divides his time between the Twin Cities and burnt side lake near Ely where he and his wife have a small cedar sided cabin. He says he's been coming to The Boundary Waters for more than 50 years
(00:11:39) in 1930. When I was 11 years old we camped on a peninsula in Lac Lacroix that had never been logged and it was my first experience camping in a ver big virgin Pine Forest and I will never forget that experience it stayed with me the rest of my life. This is just something you want to do. You want to see this area preserved but not preserve like a fine grater wine that you set on the shelves and keep for your great great great great grandchildren to drink. And now many years in the future know this Wilderness has to be used. Should be used regularly.
(00:12:19) In a back office of Cliff worlds outfitting business a personal computer works non-stop printing out newsletters to a list of legislators and environmental groups and former customers world says he's fighting for a new law because the 78 act takes the concept of preservation too far. They want to go out there
(00:12:38) see no one or very few people and this Wilderness The Boundary Waters canoe area Wilderness belongs to all Americans not just the wilderness pyrrhus.
(00:12:49) World has been outfitting Wilderness campers in Ely for 28 years. He contends the 78 law has been as tough on the town as the mine shut down three years ago. He points to his own business as an example by 1972.
(00:13:06) I think I was the primary complete outfitting company in Ely outfitting 38 hundred and fifty people completely in 1972. It's dropped to about half this year. We met outfit about 1800. It's dropped
(00:13:26) not all of ely's Outfitters were opposed to the 1978 legislation Bill ROM was in the business for 30 years and remains a vocal proponent of the law.
(00:13:36) If you look back into history and Minnesota wasn't a hundred percent Wilderness at one time. And today about two percent as well Earnest. That's our Bonnie Waters canoe area. So if we didn't have that 2% the people that desire Wilderness or Wilderness experience would be shut out
(00:13:54) ROM is 70 years old. He says he spent most of his life fighting the majority in
(00:13:58) Ely there been a lot of threats my signs on the highway. We're continually chopped up and you know torn down on a fernbird road. We are picketing in front of our store a big logging trucks and everything tied up for two very important weekends in May 1 year. And we've had a little bomb go off on her steps one time and half after the during the air band fight there was back in 1949, but there have been threats of had snowmobiles come around my house here in three o'clock in the morning and just keep circling the house, but we're still sticking by our guns. We're still here. This is our hometown and I'm nobody's chasing me out of town
(00:14:40) the days of vandalism and violence have passed now the bitterness that remains seems more direct. At the federal government than individuals who supported the BWC a law. Eighth District Congressman James Oberstar who pushed unsuccessfully for a less restrictive bill says the interests of most Elites were simply overpowered.
(00:15:01) I think you have to understand the context of the times of the people that lived in that area successively. They had seen their lifestyle restricted the kinds of use of the area gradually whittled down they had there. Back to the wall and they weren't going to give in what they didn't realize was frankly. We were outgunned
(00:15:24) despite motorboat restrictions and the loss of many resorts tourism in Ely seems to be on the rise this warm weekday afternoon has brought a Non-Stop flow of visitors through the Ely Chamber of Commerce good family restaurant a
(00:15:38) good family restaurant. Okay, if you go down to Britain's Cafe if you just go right out of the parking lot here turn. Left go all the way down to the
(00:15:47) last chamber director. Gene. Larson says traffic has been good all summer. She's hopeful that represents a turnaround for Ely a sign that the townspeople ten years after the fact are starting to work with the 78 law instead of against it. If you take something that's very devastating and sit back and look at it. And you think well now I've got to come up with something new and something Innovative something that is going to work to our benefit. I think it has taught our Are people that they have to use their Ingenuity their imagination and come up with some new ways of marketing and new
(00:16:26) ideas.
(00:16:29) Ali canoe Outfitter Woods, Davis says, he didn't like the 78 legislation any more than most Ely residents. But once it passed woods and his partner Tom where say they didn't waste any time lamenting the third of their business that relied on Motors Woods Davis
(00:16:45) we had to go Out and in to appeal to people who didn't want to take a motor as much as we had in the past prior to the 78 law. There were 44 percent of our customers took a motorboat one way or another and of course after them 78 law, I would say that the percentage is down to around
(00:17:02) 10% Davis says they replaced the blue-collar fisherman who wanted motors with what he calls wine and Cheezer's Wilderness lovers who wanted a paddle only
(00:17:11) experience Moose Lake is about 3 miles long. It's a typical Lake In The Boundary Waters canoe area. Mia and as you can look up the lake it's quiet. It's peaceful. This is one of the lakes that makes selling of The Boundary Waters canoe area to a marketeer very easy because we just drink the water right out of this Lake. It's Crystal Clear water as I say there no cabins on the lakes or no Cottages are no roads and it'll aches and it's the land of the moon and the land of the bald eagle
(00:17:36) back in his office Davis talks about their newest project a Cooperative Venture with the u.s. Forest service the Outfitters built a pair of rental hike in Lake cabins on Rural land outside the Wilderness the cabins with no running water and out houses were booked solid for the summer even at seven hundred dollars a
(00:17:54) week. There's probably locations in the Superior National Forest for maybe up to 50 so that there's quite a few opportunities for other businesses to have similar cabins, you know Resorts or something like that up in the gun Clint area or Crane Lake area so that it's it could be a brand new industry for northern
(00:18:13) Minnesota. It's taken nearly Ten years to come this far. Most people in Ely still think they're town in their rights were trampled by an all too powerful environmental movement a few say they won't stop fighting to repeal the law. But the majority have slowly come to accept it in 1988. Most Elites are willing to leave the past and look to the concrete signs of growth in their Community. The state's proposed to million-dollar Wolf Center is scheduled to be built here a private office building nearing completion will house several high-tech companies. Employ some 50 people Minnesota's Department of Revenue is opening and Ali Division office in October. The breeze of optimism is a welcome change for This Town Canoe Outfitter Woods
(00:18:57) Davis. There's just a very very small minority that is still as their your guns loaded and they're Bandits sharpened and ready to go to battle. There are a lot of things that may not be quite right, but overall if you sit back and you really look at it with clear eyes, I think you will see that. Ely has has taken some giant steps forward and is ready to forget the past and go forward in the future
(00:19:28) Wilderness truce Ely 10 years later is a main street radio production. It was written and produced by Les finger. And Rachel re be the engineer was Scott Bridgewater editorial assistants from Sarah Mayer and Kate moose. I'm Les fanger.


Materials created/edited/published by Archive team as an assigned project during remote work period in 2020

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