Summer’s finally here, and there are hundreds of ways we plan to enjoy it outdoors—from watching a Twins game or attending a festival, to camping, hiking, fishing, boating or just having friends over for a grill-out.
Case in point: I’m writing this after just diving into crystal-clear water on a blue-sky, 90-degree Saturday afternoon. Earlier, I enjoyed running on part of the Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail, one of our state’s 2,865 miles of walking/running/biking trails mostly created by converting old railroad lines. Two weeks from now, I head up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW); a few weeks after that, it’s camping near Brainerd; in August there’s hiking in Winona...
We’re fortunate to live in a part of the world with fresh air, fresh water, free access to lakes and trails, and summertime weather that makes being outside so enjoyable. It’s easy to take for granted that it’s always been so good. But other than the weather, the rest of it was created (or preserved) over many years by leaders and citizens who believed in leaving things better for the next generation.
Doing this required capital, though. Minnesota was fortunate to have thousands of miles of old-growth forest for logging and rich black topsoil for growing grains and other crops. It also had pioneers with the right smarts and timing to create giant businesses (including Pillsbury, General Mills and Cargill) able to capitalize on those natural resources, along with a population known for its strong work ethic. Such companies generated enough wealth for a portion of it to be reinvested into the state—some directly from companies, but most from the individuals that owned or ran them.
Next came foresight, a lot of arguing and a common desire to leave things better—regardless of political affiliation. We’ve seen this with how the state has led the nation in reducing coal-fired power plant emissions and clean water standards. But the most extensive battles and victories have involved the Boundary Waters.
Tens of millions of dollars have been spent, and epic legal, political and conservation-vs.-industry battles have been fought over it since the U.S. government first withdrew 500,000 acres from availability for settlement there in 1902.
Most of what is considered the BWCAW today was established as the Superior Roadless Primitive Area by the U.S. Forestry Service in 1938. But logging was still allowed, as was later the use of power boats, snowmobiles and fly-ins. Resorts popped up and in some areas cabins were permitted for a brief period of time.
Others continued to see it as a land of opportunity. In 1925, considerable effort went into a proposal for a series of dams to harness hydroelectric power; doing so would have obliterated most of the wilderness area. Most people living near the area favored the idea because of the jobs it would bring, but conservationists won out, and the idea eventually died.
Meanwhile, efforts to mine near and even within the BWCAW have continued for decades. As far back as the mid-1960s, there was copper-nickel prospecting adjacent to it.
At that time, conservationists and various political leaders’ efforts to make it a true wilderness area started to gain ground with the goal of no logging, motor boats, snowmobiles, resorts or mining. The movement involved several lawsuits, ugly protests, federal and appeals court decisions, state legislation, executive orders from U.S. presidents, acts of Congress and even a suit by Gov. Al Quie against the U.S. government, seeking to kill the law largely responsible for protecting the area as it is today.
If you’re one of the 200,000 people each year who paddle through the area, or camp or hike there, you’d never know such a serene place had been the source of so much tumult. But you can enjoy it now thanks to the work of all those people during the last 100 years. And of course, the challenge continues: How do we help industries employ more people while protecting this state and its national treasure?
Last December, the U.S. Forestry Service said it would not renew two mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota, saying its proposed $2.8 billion copper mine near Ely poses too great of a risk of contaminating the BWCAW’s lakes and rivers. Twin Metals says this is the world’s largest untapped copper-nickel deposit, and that it would bring hundreds of jobs to a region that has been losing them for decades. So the battle—and balancing act between what’s good for the economy and what’s good for the environment—continues.
The same is true regarding protecting our air and water quality (there’s a lot of interesting history in these areas as well). Minnesota has been a leader in finding the right balance that produces an environment good for business and good for our health.
Given our rich history, I’m confident our state will continue to do so over time, regardless of what may come up in individual situations, or out of the current adminstration in Washington.
Food for thought as you enjoy the outdoors this summer!