“Wilderness Canoe Country: Minnesota’s Greatest Recreational Asset”

By Sigurd F. Olson
published in Naturalist, 1967

The Value of Wilderness

Sig and Walter Hansen in front of Border Lakes Outfitters in Ely

Sigurd with Walter F. “Wallie” Hansen, one of his two partners in the Border Lakes Outfitting Company, formed in 1929

The wilderness canoe country is northern Minnesota’s greatest recreational asset. Outside of its beauty, uniqueness, historical significance and fishing, it has a quality that other lake and forest areas do not possess, its primitive character. This is the magnet that draws people, the fact that here alone in the Midwest one can still see country as it looked before settlement. Should this quality disappear, it would lose what millions have come to cherish in a land where wilderness is fast becoming a rarity.

Conservationists have been trying to save this quality of the BWCA for almost half a century. The efforts have been many, no matter what the threats, and the objectives always the same. The road program of the twenties, the power dam proposals, the raising of water levels and the logging of the shorelines, airplanes and airplane resorts, all had they not been curbed would have destroyed in each case the wilderness itself.

When one pictures what could have happened had one of these gone through, the dams of a great power complex, submerging lakes as deep as eighty feet along the border, drowning islands, rapids, waterfalls, beaches, and campsites, destroying forests and creating vast swamps and ugly sloughs far inland, there would have been little to protect today.

Greater use, however, brings its own hazards to the wilderness, especially when it means mechanization in the form of outboard motors, snowmobiles, and other craft or vehicles. It is my firm belief that mechanized use of any kind in this small area is
destructive of wilderness values and that it should be strictly regulated and in time eliminated entirely.

Opponents of such regulation point at Canada, saying it permits airplanes, airplane resorts, and unrestricted motor boat use, that we have lost business now going north. This may be true to a certain extent, but it must be recognized that the BWCA is only a million acres whereas Canada has hundreds of millions of acres of forested lakes and waterways accessible by air.

Due to its relatively small size, the BWCA cannot stand such types of use. Canada due to its vastness can absorb it. However, Ontario has banned snowmobiles in all its provincial parks including the Quetico as detrimental to wilderness values, fish and wildlife.

No one likes regulation, but regulation is mandatory when large numbers of people use any area. Fifty years ago there were no highway patrols, or stop and go signs, nor was there any need for zoning in towns and cities. We did not need regulations then but we do now. The BWCA as a part of a national forest needs such protection through zoning if it is to be properly administered and protected.

As our population increases, and it may double by the end of the century, with more leisure time and better transportation
facilities, pressures will become greater and greater. Our responsibility today is to plan as wisely as we can to preserve
the wilderness character of an area that belongs not only to us but to every man, woman, and child in the United States. This is
not a local issue but a national one, and whatever is done must reflect the needs of all the people. Our obligation is a great
one, to preserve this area unchanged for coming generations who will need it far more than us….

The Local Economy

The canoe outfitting business is a substantial and important source of income to the area. For some years I ran the Border Lakes Outfitting Company at Winton and know from personal experience that canoe parties leave good U.S. dollars not only with outfitters, but with motels, hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and stores.

A prominent local outfitter recently had his parties fill out a questionnaire as to the actual money spent on canoe trips, the final figure averaging about $40.00 per person. If this is a normal expenditure and there are 50,000 people going into the canoe country annually, it will amount to $2,000,000. There are indications that this figure might well be doubled and the U.S. Forest Service estimates that some 250,000 people use the Boundary Waters Canoe Area each season. For those who believe that canoeists leave little money, such figures are hard to contradict.

Camping as a form of recreation has exploded all over the United States. With better equipment, more leisure, and improved access, whole families are taking to the road and nothing will stop the trend. It is like the boom in skiing and the phenomenal growth of ski resorts. People have discovered that this is the best and most economical way to enjoy the country and canoe trips are part of the pattern. That is why they come in ever-increasing numbers and will continue as long as the canoe country retains its character as the only lake wilderness of its kind in the United States.

Multiple Use and Zoning

The concept of Multiple Use is a sound one and a major premise in management of the U.S. Forest Service. Only when it is understood, however, that all uses must not be practiced on every acre does it accomplish its true purpose. In the
congressional act establishing this broad concept, wilderness is specifically recognized as a legitimate use in all national forests.

One fact that is usually overlooked is that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is only the upper third of the Superior National Forest and that the balance of over two million acres of land and water can be used for recreational developments of all kinds in accordance with Forest Service planning and protection, scenic roads, resorts and lodges, snowmobile trails, free outboard motor use, timber utilization and mining. In this much larger part of the forest all such utilization is possible.

The slogan of “Saving our Wilderness through Multiple Use” is sound only in the proper application of the concept, but is absolutely erroneous if it means the kind of management and utilization allowed in the rest of the forest. The wilderness was here long before white men came, needs no logging or mechanized use to survive, only protection. Those who believe that through a continuation of timber harvesting and other adverse uses the wilderness can be saved violate the true concept of zoning.

Correctly interpreted, the idea of zoning the canoe country for wilderness use and relegating all other uses to the major part of the forest is the only hope for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. If it is to remain unchanged and inviolate this is the only course and not too much to ask for the American people.

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