Minnesotans, Start Your Engines?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1997

Minnesotans, Start Your Engines?

A long-simmering feud heats up on Capitol Hill, as canoeists and speedboaters square off over some of the nation's most hallowed wilderness
By Jonathan Weisman

Gary Joselyn dips his paddle into Poplar Lake and points his canoe northwest, heading out on a spin into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. At 68, he has the look of a man comfortable with his surroundings, and indeed the stroke work at hand requires little of his attention. The lake is quiet, a silence only occasionally broken by the sound of paddles clanking against canoe hulls. But not for long: Joselyn knows his route will lead him to a stretch where the sputterings of outboards are as common as the cries of the loons. "There are 12,000 lakes in Minnesota, and almost all of them permit motors," laments Joselyn, a retired University of Minnesota professor who's been coming to the Boundary Waters for 35 years. "Why do we need motors on these lakes, too?"

Certainly Joselyn's is a question that has divided Minnesotans for decades. And this month, the battle over the Boundary Waters is coming to a head, as Congress prepares to act on legislation that would expand the use of motorized vehicles in one of the nation's largest and most heavily used wildernesses. As is often the case, the debate pits small-town locals against big-city greens. But this time the fight seems to hold particular resonance, as each side asserts its claim to what has long been trumpeted as the centerpiece of the federal wilderness system. "This isn't just about letting a few more motorboats onto the lakes," says Kevin Proescholdt, executive director of Minneapolis-based Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. "It's a symbolic, emotional issue."

The feud over the Boundary Waters, a vast expanse of more than a million acres and 1,100 lakes that stretches nearly 150 miles along the Canada border, has been simmering since 1978, when the federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act attempted to forge a compromise by allowing motorboat access to 22 lakes — some of which, like Brule and Sea Gull, would gradually become engine-free. Barring feasible alternatives, the act said, trucks and other motor conveyances could be used on the so-called Prairie, Trout, and Four-Mile portages. But this delicate compromise unraveled in 1992, when a U.S. Circuit Court judge, siding with environmentalists, agreed that there were feasible alternatives to mechanized transport and closed the portages to vehicle traffic. With the trucks gone, many of the motorboats vanished as well, given the difficulty of hauling the watercraft by handcart over distances spanning as much as four miles.

Locals complain that the end of truck portaging has closed the wilderness to all but the young and strong. Joe Madden, who lives just 25 miles from the wilderness in the town of Britt, says he and his grandfather used to fish the waters of the canoe area all the time — but since the elder Madden's triple-bypass surgery, a family tradition has ended. "Those portages are almost too much for two healthy people to manage," Madden says. "Really, if people don't want to be around motors, all they have to do is move to one of the other lakes."

Indeed, at first glance the mechanization currently being debated doesn't seem all that intrusive. The bill, cosponsored by Senator Rod Grams, a conservative Republican and former Minneapolis television anchorman, and Congressman James L. Oberstar, a moderate upstate Minnesota Democrat, calls for the reopening of the three portages to truck traffic and the expansion of motorboating in Sea Gull Lake, a body of water that straddles the wilderness boundary. But environmentalists say the proposal is worrisome for two reasons. First, though very little new ground will be thrown open to belching outboards, the ability to bring them in by truck is expected to dramatically increase traffic on lakes where they are currently allowed. Next, and perhaps most disturbing, many seem to feel that the bill is but the first step down a very slippery slope. "This legislation fundamentally takes the concept of wilderness two steps backward," insists Congressman Bruce Vento, a Twin Cities Democrat.

While at press time the bill's chances remain unclear — a more sweeping Boundary Waters bill died on the Hill last year under threat of veto, but this year's offering is seen as a kinder, gentler version and, unlike its predecessor, is not laden with unrelated provisions — Vento vows to do everything in his power to derail it. In fact, he has recently introduced counterlegislation that would close Sea Gull Lake to motorboats and add even more land to the designated wilderness. "If you sit back and play defense, you're never going to score," Vento says. "There's no way I'm going to just watch the '78 compromise get thrown out the window — not when it threatens to do this much damage to our nation's signature wilderness."

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