Dennis Anderson
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This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which designated the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness one of the nation's first remote areas to be protected in its mostly natural state.

Sixty years is something to celebrate, or at least to take note. But the anniversary will largely go unnoticed. And people who do pay attention likely will take away from the commemoration only that someone had a good idea six decades ago to protect the BWCAW and, in the many years since, similarly to set aside about 800 of the nation's other pristine areas.

The lesson that instead should be gained from the Wilderness Act's diamond jubilee is that conservation and protection of the nation's valuable places and resources require passion and dedication by many people over significant periods of time.

As Teddy Roosevelt famously said, "There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country."

He should have added, "But prepare for the long haul."

Safeguarding the BWCAW — the nation's most popular wilderness area — proves the point, because protecting it didn't begin in 1964 with passage of the Wilderness Act, but more than a century ago in 1902.

That's when Christopher Andrews, Minnesota's forestry commissioner, convinced the state to set aside 500,000 acres near the Minnesota-Ontario border from being sold to loggers. A few years later, Andrews protected another 141,000 acres. And a few years after that, he helped convince Canada to establish the adjoining Quetico Provincial Park.

In 1926, U.S. Agriculture Secretary William Jardine helped form the BWCAW's initial boundaries when he designated 640,000 acres of northern Minnesota's Superior National Forest as a roadless wilderness area. Congress passed the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act in 1930, preventing logging and dams in the area. And in 1938, the roadless area was expanded again and renamed the Superior Roadless Primitive Area.

None of which stopped floatplanes from flying anglers into the border country, most of whom were destined for wilderness resorts, whose businesses were booming, particularly after World War II.

Knowing these outfits would result in lakes being over-fished, and that floatplanes taking off and landing would discourage canoe travel in the area, conservationists lobbied for federal funds to buy out the resorts and for a presidential order prohibiting airplanes from flying below 4,000 feet over the border lakes.

Canadian officials also had grown weary of resorts on the Minnesota side of the Boundary Waters making big money from fly-in sportsmen, while no such transactions were occurring north of the border. In the early 1940s, Canada claimed 1,300 Americans paddled Quetico annually, while only three Canadians did.

Unless the U.S. bought out its wilderness resorts and instituted a Boundary Waters flying ban, the Canadians said they would lease parts of Quetico to similar businesses so they could cash in.

The growing number of conservationists who sought to protect the Superior Roadless Primitive Area often disagreed with one another, sometimes vehemently, about the best approach.

These included Sigurd Olson, the ecologist and author; Frank Hubachek, a Yale graduate, prominent Chicago lawyer and frequent Boundary Waters visitor and advocate; and Ernest Oberholtzer, an Iowa native and Harvard graduate who lived on a Rainy Lake island for more than 50 years.

In his excellent biography of Olson, the late David Backes writes that if Ontario followed through on its threat to open the Quetico to resort businesses, Hubachek would stop raising funds for the region's protection.

"That (Ontario's threatened action) will doom our efforts, except for some miracle which reasonable men cannot expect to happen," Hubachek wrote to Oberholtzer in 1946. "I will have to leave the arena because the cause is lost ... It is bitter to see 21 years lost in this manner."

At the time, Olson was just ending a stint as dean of Ely Junior College, and Hubachek and Oberholtzer — with some hesitation — asked Olson to lead a national group that advocated for the buyout of American wilderness resorts, along with an airplane ban over the roadless area.

Hubachek and a colleague, Charles Kelly, were particularly worried Olson was too much of a wilderness "fanatic" who might not be tactful enough to deal with the "hard-boiled people we have to deal with."

In fact, Olson already by then had said publicly he believed motorboats and logging should be banned in the Boundary Waters, positions that neither Oberholtzer nor Hubachek had ever spoken, and perhaps didn't believe possible.

But Olson took the job and temporarily moved to Chicago, from which he could travel readily to Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Presaging the skills for which he would become prominent until his 1982 death in Ely at age 82, he employed his charisma, powers of persuasion and lyrical prose to successfully gain support for the land buyouts and airplane ban.

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey introduced the first version of the Wilderness Act in 1956. Before the bill's eventual 1964 passage, it would undergo countless revisions and be the subject of considerable acrimony, particularly in Ely, where Olson suffered the condemnation of many of his fellow residents.

Now it's 2024, and the issue is mining along the BWCAW's southern border, which opponents say — correctly — threatens the wilderness's clean water and pristine nature.

If the past is prologue on this 60th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the fight will be a long one.