History of the BWCAW

The Superior National Forest's Boundary Waters Canoe Area is located within the triangle which lies south of the Pigeon and Rainy Rivers and extends southward to Lake Superior. This triangle is frequently referred to as the Minnesota Arrowhead Country. Geologically the 1,029,000 acre BWCA occupies the lower portion of the Canadian Shield. Here glaciers of the past have exposed bedrock and formed a myriad of lakes now connected by streams and portages. This is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The early explorers of the 17th century found the Sioux Indians in possession of the area (with exception to the Arrowhead region), with the Chippewa Indians contesting their right to hold it. By the middle of the 18th century, the Chippewas had driven the Sioux to the south and the west and assumed occupancy of the region. The change in control, however, altered its conditions but little.

Next came the white fur traders, the voyageurs, or coureur de bois, with their scattered posts and forts throughout the Arrowhead region. During the open-water season they used the canoe and bateau (on the Great Lakes) for travel and the transportation of furs and supplies. When the snows were deep, some tended trap lines, using snowshoes to traverse over the snowcovered land. Many others traded with natives in the area, who did a majority of the trapping at that time. All in all, theirs was usually a life of vigorous activity.

At the close of the French and Indian War in 1765, the jurisdiction of Canada was changed from the French to the British, but bitter contentions continued to exist between competitive fur companies. The heavy pressures on the furbearers during the first thirty or forty years of the 19th century so depleted the population of furbearing animals that the major companies were forced to operate farther west in areas which had not been exploited. The traders left their landmarks--as evidence of earlier occupation. As they traveled over the numerous lakes and rivers, they found convenient waterways and connecting portages--most shown to them by their native guides, whose people had used them for several thousands of years. Little did they realize that these canoe routes would one day constitute a national issue.

When the thirteen colonies became the United States of America and the Treaty of Paris established the Mississippi as the western boundary of the country, the Americans vied with the English for the fur trade in the area. The problems arising were not settled until the consummation of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, when a definite boundary line was established between Minnesota and Canada.

With the signing of the Treaty of LaPointe in 1854 with the Chippewas of Lake Superior, much of eastern Minnesota was further thrown open to white man's exploration and development. The mineral prospectors were the first to rush in, and they searched up and down the border. There were several gold rushes which proved ephemeral, such as that at Lake Vermillion in 1865-66. The brief enthusiasm produced no appreciable amount of gold. More important, however, was the discovery of iron ore on the Vermillion Range. Mines were developed at Soudan and Ely in the late 1880's and early 1890's. This was followed almost immediately by the location of extensive and rich deposits of hematite on the Mesaba Range. By the opening of the 20th century, the region was dotted by a number of thriving communities and numerous shaft and open pit iron mines.

Contrary to popular belief, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area was not one of primeval forests and untouched wilderness,, and has not been continuous virgin timber country for many decades. By the time of World War I, much of the land had either been burned away or cutover, with the result that a great part of the forest growth consisted of jack pine, spruce, balsam and aspen rather than red and white pine and white spruce. There is definite evidence that fires were common in the area over the past several centuries. These fires created habitat conditions favorable for wildlife as well as increased production of blueberries, long a choice native crop.

It is difficult to piece together any reliable information because of the lack of early records. On page 9 of Rainy River Country, by Grace Lee Nute, we find the following statement:

"Forest fires were destructive and hazardous then as now. The second of three Jesuit priests to serve as a missionary at Fort St. Charles (on a small island in Lake of the Woods--built by LaVerenrye in 1732), Father Jean Pierre Aulneau, wrote to his relative] in France that in 1735 he 'journeyed nearly all the way' from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods 'through fire and thick stifling smokes' which prevented him from 'even once catching a glimpse of the sun'."

Whether these early fires were caused by the action of Indians, explorers, traders, or the result of electrical storms will perhaps never be known. The fact remains that increasing information is being discovered which verifies the extensive fires of the distant past.

In 1895, a former St. Cloud resident, General Christopher C. Andrews, the first Chief Fire Warden of Minnesota and later its Forestry Commissioner, persistently supported the cause of preserving various segments of Minnesota's forests for posterity. With the help of some Twin Cities citizens, he began a public educational campaign in the interest of a forest reserve for the Upper Mississippi. In 1902, their efforts bore fruit in the creation of a 200,000 acre forest reserve in the vicinity of Lake Winnibigoshish, which later became the nucleus of the Chippewa National Forest.

A few years later, General Andrews' zeal was transferred to the Arrowhead Country, where he sought lands which would be permanently dedicated to public use. The Legislature of Minnesota, elected by the State's overwhelming farm population, did not give favorable consideration to his proposals. He then turned to the Federal Government and was rewarded with success. On June 30, 1902, the Commissioner of the General Land Office withdrew 500,000 acres of forest in Lake and Cook Counties from entry. A second withdrawal dated August 18, 1905, covered approximately 141,000 acres. The third withdrawal dated April 22, 1908, covered approximately 518,700 acres.

Following the third withdrawal, steps were taken by the Secretary of Agriculture to have the area officially designated as the Superior National Forest. This was formally approved by Proclamation No. 848 by President Theodore Roosevelt on February 13, 1909, and covered an area of approximately 1,018,638 acres.

It should be noted that the proclaimed area of the Superior National Forest was 137,000 acres less than the acreage listed in the three withdrawals. The lands outside of the proclaimed boundaries were formally released from the temporary withdrawal on September 22, 1909.

The original Proclamation No. 848 of February 13, 1909, set aside three separate areas as constituting the forest because these areas were those in which the least amount of land had been alienated. The first included the southern shore of Lake Saganaga and large area to the south; the second included a long narrow strip from Lac LaCroix to the western edge of Basswood Lake; the third and largest consisted of a large block in the east central portion of the present Forest. Conspicuously absent from this Forest was the strip of border country from Basswood to Saganaga Lake, which contains some of the choicest portions of the present Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It was not to become a part of the Forest until 1936. This area, which was largely alienated, generated many of the problems of management, some of which are still not solved. It is important that the ownership situation, and particularly how the Forest was put together, be understood if one is to comprehend some of the later points of controversy and difficulties of management.

After its establishment, little was heard about the Superior National Forest for the period of 1909 to about 1920. The three most important events which occurred during that period may be briefly described as follows: The first was the passage of the Weeks Act of March 1, 1911. This made it possible to concentrate ownership in the proclaimed areas and made it possible for other areas to be proclaimed. The most important area of this nature was the border country lying between Basswood and Saganaga Lakes. The second important event was the first expansion of the Superior National Forest accomplished by Presidential Proclamation No 1215 in 1912. This added about 380,000 acres to the Forest. The third important development was the influx of recreation visitors to the national forest, and especially to the border lake country. This followed immediately after World War I. Apparently, the rigorous training required by the Armed Forces had emphasized the need for periods of relaxation and had stimulated interest in outdoor life. At the same time, automobile transportation and the development of highway systems provided greater mobility for many of our people. It is interesting to note that for the year 1919 the total number of visitors to the Superior National Forest was estimated to be 12,750. Even for the relatively small group there were limited accommodations.

The two decades following 1920 constitute a story of successive controversies over use and management.

The increased interest in travel, and especially outdoor recreation, resulted in a great influx of people to the national forest of the entire country. It was then that the devotee of recreation came in conflict with those interested in the production of timber and the generation of hydro-power. At that time, little consideration was given to develop plans for the public use of forests. There were neither precedents nor policies upon which to base programs for the recreationists. The first attempt for managing the recreation resources of the Forest came in 1919 when Arthur H. Carhart was employed as a landscape architect for the Forest Service. His appointment meant (1) recognition of the necessity of recreation planning in the national forests, (2) production of the first plan of management of what was later to become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of the Superior National Forest, and (3) the first actual studied application of protected wilderness as an integral part of national forest management.

The following paragraph is basic to Mr. Carhart's general thought: "It is evident, if Minnesota wishes to retain the scenic beauty which is hers, there must be some immediate action toward general preservation of good timber stands bordering lakes and streams. This does not mean that cutting shall be excluded from these locations but that the aesthetic qualities shall, where of high merit, take precedence over the commer- cialization of such timber stands."

At the conclusion of 1922, Mr. Carhart resigned from his position with the comment, "The recreation work needs more funds and organization to work with in order to approach the needed progress." This statement is as true today as it was then.

A more complete point of view was expressed in 1921 in a resolution adopted by the Superior National Forest Recreation Association:

"Be it resolved to recommend to the Secretary of Agriculture and the United States Forest Service that a more thorough study be made of the Superior National Forest, which will take into account every possible feature of development, economic, recreational, scenic and aesthetic,, with a view that its final development will give the highest possible service to all the people of the United States."

In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge issued Proclamation No. 1800, the third proclamation enlarging the Superior National Fores, which added approximately 360,000 acres to the Superior National Forest. During the succeeding years, considerable public support developed for the preservation of the scenic values of the area. Public hearings were held and as a result, in 1926, Secretary of Agriculture Jardine issued the first policy statement for the so-called primitive area, the main provisions of which included:

    1.  To retain as much wilderness as possible associated with the land having recreational opportunities.

    2.  To build no roads where the Forest Service exerts control.

    3.  To build simple campground facilities as may be needed to prevent escape of fire or protect sanitary conditions.

    4.  To utilize the timber produced under careful methods of cutting that insure a continuous supply with the      preservation of nature scenery along lakeshores, adjacent to campgrounds and similar areas.

Within a year, the Forest Service developed a recreational plan for the Canoe Area in accordance with the Jardine policy.

As a result of the water power threat and by public demand, the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act was passed in 1930.

The events leading to the passage of this Act are a fascinating story in itself; the untiring devotion to a few to a cause--often against great odds. However, after a long light at the close of the 1930 Session of Congress, the law was passed. The Act's main provision were:

    1.  To conserve for recreational use the beauty of shorelines which are now used or will be used for general boat or      canoe travel.

    2.  That there be no logging within 400 feet of natural shorelines, except for practical reasons.

    3.  That there be no further alteration of the natural water levels, except by special Act of Congress.

    4. That all public lands were withdrawn from entry.

In 1933, the State of Minnesota passed similar legislation to protect State-owned shorelines within the same area. President Roosevelt in 1934 created the Quetico Superior Committee whose purpose was to consult and advise with the several Federal Departments and agencies operating in the Superior area and with the State of Minnesota. The committee has been extended by succeeding Presidents. The minutes of meetings reflect that all major phases of management of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area have been discussed and mutually agreed to by the Committee and the Forest Service.

The next circumstance involves the name of the Area. Originally, it was called a Wilderness Area. The name then changed to "Primitive Area" then "Roadless Primitive Area." Standard nomenclature for various types of recreational areas was lacking at that time.

In 1958, the present more fittinig name, Boundary Waters Canoe Area, was adopted. While names have changed, the fundamental policy of providing for maximum use and enjoyment of the area while protecting its resources and maintaining its natural qualities has not.

From the early 1920's, one of the major detracting factors to establishing an area of wilderness environment was the mixed landownership.

With the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, making acquisition possible, the Superior National Forest was, through a series of extensions in 1930-33-35-36, increased to its present size. This made it possible to increase the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to its present area of one million acres.

In the late 1940's it became apparent that if the objectives were to be reached, the remaining resorts and summer homes must be acquired. Again, groups and individuals interested in the area pressed for enactment of the Thye-Blatnik Bill, which became Public Law 733 in 1948. This Act authorized and directed the Forest Service to acquire lands within an area covering about two-thirds of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It carried an authorization of $500,000, which was subsequently appropriated by Congress.

In 1956, the area was extended by Public Law 607 to cover all of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the authorization increased to $2,500,000. In 1961, an additional authorization of $2,000,000, was made available, making a total authorization of 4-1/2 million dollars, all of which as been appropriated by Congress. The Forest Service was also authorized to employ the right of eminent domain on tracts that could not otherwise be acquired.

In 1948, considerable progress had been made in the acquisition of the unimproved lands. Action has been started to acquire all remaining improved private lands through direct purchase of condemnation, and all unimproved private land, through purchase or exchange.

In 1949, President Truman issued an Executive Order establishing an air-space reservation over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Briefly, this order restricted flying below 4,000 feet above sea level except in emergencies or for safety reasons. It became effective in 1951.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 designated the BWCA as a unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System. This act recognized the unique history and character of the BWCA and provided for special management considerations.

A special BWCA regulation (36 CFR 251.85) prepared in accordance with the Wilderness Act was approved in 1965. This regulation with its administrative guides of the Chief, Forest Service, provides the primary direction for management today.

Various plans of management, revised roughly each ten years, have employed into a comprehensive Management Handbook. This Handbook is a fairly complete working tool designed to provide uniformity in applying direction contained in the various laws and regulations described above.

Getting the job done--during this 38 years of special management--has taken the imagination, initiative, the tenacity of many public spirited citizens and groups, a great amount of bold and forthright action by legislative and administrative leaders at Federal and State levels. The exciting experiences, the trials, tribulations and frustrations of those charged with getting the job done on the ground has provided the final link to success. The BWCA today is dedicated to public use and enjoyment in a natural setting that can be perpetuated.