We often think of wilderness as an entirely natural area that remains untouched by human influence. It’s questionable if truly untouched wilderness areas still exist anywhere in the world. They certainly don’t in most of the United States, and it’s doubtful that even the remotest areas of Alaska are totally without human influence today.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), the nation’s second largest and most-visited designated wilderness area, lies about 500 miles to our north, and is part of Superior National Forest. It has a history of human influence that spans hundreds of years, but it’s as close as we can get to a wilderness experience within a day’s drive of central Iowa. It’s still possible to spend at least a day or two out of contact with other humans or human-created noise on some of the more remote canoe routes through the area and to imagine that the lakes and forests are just as they were when only a few Native Americans occupied the area. It’s still a pleasant and refreshing illusion for those who have experienced it. The area was heavily trapped and hunted during the fur trade era of the 1700s into 1800s. Much of the forest was cut during the logging era that extended into the early 1900s. Signs of that era can still be seen if one looks carefully on some of the lakes and rivers. Iron mining was next in line to harvest the area’s resources and continued into the mid 1900s. Numerous lodges and resorts were built when the area became popular as a canoe wilderness in the 1930s and 40s. Some were on remote lakes accessible only by air or several days of canoe travel from the nearest road.
Designation of the Boundary Waters as a protected wilderness area within the national forest came in 1978 after lengthy political battles in Minnesota and Washington. Forests are growing again where resorts on interior lakes once stood, and only a trained eye can still detect evidence of logging and mining that so affected the area a century ago. The natural processes of fire, wind and the natural succession of plant/animal communities are again shaping the face of the land. There was at least a brief sense of relief that this great natural area was finally protected and would be available for people to enjoy into the foreseeable future. The relief was short-lived, however, and battles to keep the area as pristine as possible never really stopped. Some want more of the area open to motorboats and snowmobiles. Complete cell phone coverage throughout the wilderness area is wanted now. Several tall new towers have been built just outside the wilderness area and a new tower was recently proposed in the heart of the wilderness area near Seagull Lake, 60 miles northwest of Grand Marias. The noise of a motorboat or the sight a cell tower on the horizon certainly diminishes a wilderness experience, but they’re minor irritations compared to the threat facing the Boundary Waters today.
By far and away the greatest threat that the BWCAW has faced in decades recently resurfaced on the southern edge of the wilderness area when the Trump administration resurrected expired mining leases for Twin Metals, a Chilean-owned company. Twin Metals and another company, PolyMet, propose huge sulfide-ore mining operations in the area to extract copper and other metals. Sulfide-ore mining has a disastrous world-wide record, and severe environmental damage has been documented virtually everywhere it’s been done. The proposed mines, though just outside the wilderness area, are within the wilderness area’s watershed. Sulfide mining leaves large ponds of waste water that remain highly toxic for decades, if not centuries. The risk of that kind of pollution seeping into the relatively pristine lakes and rivers of the BWCAW is real. The damage it could cause is unthinkable. Many conservation and environmental groups, including one I belong to, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, are banding together to fight this latest threat. It won’t be an easy battle to win, but none of the others were, either. As always, the battle pits the interests of corporate profits against those of people who cherish unspoiled nature and the chance to renew themselves in a wilderness setting. I first visited the area as a 16-year-old and fell quite in love with it. It literally became part of who I am during dozens of trips and hundreds of miles of paddling and portaging over the years. I’m nearly 70 and may not have many more opportunities to enjoy that wild land, but I hope others will have the opportunity to enjoy it as I have well into the future.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.