What’s All the Buzz in the Boundary Waters?

What’s All the Buzz in the Boundary Waters?Dana blog

by Dana Johnson

 

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is located within the Superior National Forest in Minnesota and stretches over 115 miles along the Minnesota-Ontario border. The Wilderness, along with Canada’s adjoining Quetico Provincial Park, protects a complex ecosystem of nearly 3,000 glacial lakes connected by a vast, meandering network of streams and portages. This watery landscape is home to a diverse mix of wildlife, and it holds one of the largest remnants of uncut forest east of the Rockies. Humans have relied upon its natural abundance for centuries, including the Ojibwe who navigated its waterways in birch bark canoes. More recently, the area offers an increasingly rare connection to a world that existed before an expanding population, with all of its fast-paced and heavily consumptive interests, took hold.

Efforts to protect this area from the fallouts of Westward Expansion, industrialization, and motorization span back over a century culminating in the designation of the BWCAW. Sigurd Olson, one of the eloquent leaders in the push to protect the Boundary Waters, recognized a tie between the silence of the canoe and something we were losing through the story of progress—the knowledge of what it is to be of and with the land and waters. 

"The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores.... There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions." -Sigurd Olson, The Singing Wilderness, 1956

Sigurd would be troubled to learn that roughly one-fifth of the Wilderness’s waterways are still subjected to the persistent back and forth buzzing of motorboats including, on some routes, commercial towboats carting paying clients and their canoes to campsites and remote drop-off locations within the Wilderness, turning many entry-points and travel routes into busy motorways. The popular entry point of Moose Lake, where commercial towboat use is particularly excessive, is known for its motorized bottlenecks and the whine of engines. During one trip to survey the Moose Lake entry-point, Wilderness Watch staff were told by an outfitter that Wilderness visitors who would not otherwise consider a motorized tow regularly take a tow because paddling through motorized use areas is so unpleasant. The motorized mess in the Boundary Waters is a good example of why when Wilderness areas are designated it is so important to make sure it’s via a clean wilderness bill, without special provisions. 

The Wilderness Act was passed as a counterweight to “an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization,” and to safeguard a few wild areas “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape.”[1] It expressly prohibits motorized and mechanized uses within Wilderness recognizing that these things represented the opposite of the restraint and humility needed to guard against our compulsion to stand as masters and controllers of the world around us.

It was in this context that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was designated as one of the original Wildernesses in the 1964 Wilderness Act. Unfortunately, due to the familiar story of political pressure, the Wilderness Act included a confusing special provision allowing motorized use already existing in the BWCAW, as long as such use would not undermine the “primitive character of the area.”[2] Motorized use always undermines the primitive character of a wilderness area—that’s why the Wilderness Act prohibits it! This provision was short-lived. In response to “the confusion and litigation generated by the proviso, as well as in reaction to threatened deterioration of the wilderness from excessive use,”[3] Congress repealed the special provision and enacted the BWCAW Act of 1978.[4]


Unfortunately, once again due to political pressure, Congress was not able to eliminate motorboat use outright. Instead, this time around, Congress prohibited all motorboat use within the Wilderness except on a few specifically named lakes, instituted phase-outs of motorized use on other lakes, and imposed motor size restrictions.[5] On lakes where motorboat use was allowed, Congress set a statutory cap at “the average actual annual motorboat use of the calendar years 1976, 1977, and 1978 for each lake,”[6] and the Forest Service calculated and allocated that cap through a series of entry point quotas for each lake. What followed was decades of confused and inconsistent statutory application, an indecipherable hodgepodge of management policies and practices, multiple rounds of litigation, and an increase in particular types of motorized use to the detriment of the Wilderness. Commercial towboat use is a prime example. 

Congress did not expressly contemplate the continued use of commercial towboats when it passed the BWCAW Act in ’78, and the Forest Service has never been clear on how it monitors commercial towboat use in relation to the overall statutory cap on motorboat use. That notwithstanding, towboat use continued, and the Forest Service adopted measures to regulate it in the 1993 BWCAW Management Plan. The Plan required towboat operators to obtain special use permits, and it limited towboat use to “1992 levels for numbers of boats, trips, current operators, and specific lakes.” However, Wilderness Watch learned from a series of Freedom of Information Act requests that the Forest Service has not consistently monitored actual commercial towboat use since the inception of the BWCAW Act or since the 1993 Plan, it does not appear to know what the level of towboat trips from 1992 was, it has allowed some commercial towboat operators to run towboat services without a special use permit, and it appears that actual commercial towboat use has been steadily increasing.

Making matters worse, the Wilderness Act prohibits commercial enterprise in Wilderness with the exception of certain “necessary” commercial services.[7] The exception requires a specific finding of necessity—something typically done through a “commercial needs assessment” with requisite public involvement and formal National Environmental Policy Act review. The Forest Service had not done this either, and it wasn’t about to. So, we sued. That lawsuit resulted in a settlement where the Forest Service agreed to prepare a commercial needs assessment to get a handle on the current amount of actual towboat use in the Wilderness, make a determination on whether towboat services are necessary at all—particularly given their impact on wilderness character, and if the Forest Service deems them necessary, to what extent. The Forest Service agreed to complete this process by November 2019.

The Forest Service produced a document that attempts to assess the amount of current towboat use, but it doesn’t assess that use in the context of the overall regulatory scheme (the limitations imposed by the Act and the Plan) and explain how current use is within those limits, it does not analyze necessity in the context of impacts to wilderness character and opportunities for motorized recreation outside of Wilderness, and a host of other issues. You can read our concerns about the Forest Service’s Draft Needs Assessment here: https://wildernesswatch.org/images/wild-issues/2019/10-09-2019-WW-Comments-BWCAW-CNA.pdf.  Likely in response to the concerns we raised in the Draft Needs Assessment, the Final Needs Assessment included a reference to an “extent necessary worksheet” that might address some of our concerns (and comply with the settlement agreement). However, in a nod to Orwell, when we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for this worksheet, the Forest Service refused to give it to us saying the information was privileged and exempt from disclosure. 

The Forest Service has indicated it will likely, at an undisclosed point in the future, engage in National Environmental Policy Act review of commercial towboat use in the BWCAW. We’ll keep everyone posted about that process and encourage public involvement when the time comes. In the meantime, the towboats keep buzzing under the cloak of regulatory ambiguity and agency confusion, and we’re assessing our options for additional legal challenges. The moral of the story: Clean, simple wilderness bills without special provisions best protect Wilderness, and we must keep demanding them from Congress. In an era where much of the environmental movement has become apologetic in its approach to land protection, it isn’t surprising that wilderness bills littered with compromise are considered the norm. And we know we can’t expect the agencies to do the right thing without constant vigilance and pressure.

The very idea of Wilderness is on the line, and we must keep the courage to hold that line.

 

[1] 16 U.S.C. § 1131(a), (c).

[2] 16 U.S.C § 1133(d)(5) (1976), repealed by Pub. L. No. 95-495, 92 Stat. 1649, 1650 (1978).

[3] Minnesota v. Block, 660 F.2d 1240, 1246 (8th Cir. 1981).

[4] Pub. L. No. 95-495, 92 Stat. 1649 (1978). 

[5] Pub. L. No. 95-495, T92 Stat. 1649 (1978), 92 Stat. at 1650, 4.

[6] Pub. L. No. 95-495, T92 Stat. 1649 (1978), 92 Stat. at 1651, 4(f).

[7] 16 U.S.C. § 1133(d)(5).


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Dana Johnson is the staff attorney for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, MT, www.wildernessswatch.org.

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What’s Wrong with Monitoring Inactive Volcanoes in Wilderness?

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt

 

Wilderness Watch recently objected to a Forest Service decision to allow permanent seismic monitoring stations in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington state. If this decision doesn’t change, the Forest Service would fail to protect and preserve Glacier Peak’s wilderness conditions consistent with the 1964 Wilderness Act. Beyond Glacier Peak, any Wilderness—including those surrounding seismically-active Yellowstone National Park or elsewhere—would be damaged by the installation and servicing of any kind of permanent monitoring stations.


Wilderness is a uniquely American idea and ideal. We are incredibly lucky we still have some of it left. The framers of the Wilderness Act constantly reminded us that we would have to practice humility and restraint to keep it around. That means that all of us, visitors, managers, and other users, have to be willing to do things differently in order to preserve Wilderness for present and future generations. It’s not always easy, but it’s necessary. That’s why the recent proposal for permanent instrument installations raises concerns.

The 1964 Wilderness Act includes safeguards against permanent installations and structures in designated Wilderness, even if done for scientific purposes. Section 4(c) of this landmark law states, “…there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.” (Emphases added.) The law therefore prevents the installation of permanent seismic monitoring stations in Wilderness as well as the landing of helicopters or use of any other motorized equipment to service the stations.

The Wilderness Act does provide a very narrow exception to allow otherwise-prohibited activities, but only where such activities are necessary to preserve the area’s wilderness character. To date, the Forest Service has utterly failed to prove that degrading the Glacier Peak Wilderness with permanent structures and installations, the landing of helicopters, and the use of any other motorized equipment is the minimum necessary for preserving the area’s wilderness character.

Wilderness Watch supports scientific research in Wilderness. It is one of the primary reasons for wilderness designation and one of its greatest values. Like other activities in Wilderness, however, scientific research has to be done in a way that protects the other values of Wilderness and doesn’t include those things that the law prohibits, such as the use of helicopters for access and the installation of permanent structures. In other words, like all other wilderness visitors, including Forest Service or other wilderness managers, researchers should walk or use packstock to access Wilderness and carry in their supplies.

Our organization also supports public safety and a better understanding of seismic activity. Warning signs of an eruption, which are usually detectable outside of Wilderness, tend to be normal for Cascade Range volcanoes. Such warning signs generally precede any eruption by a significant length of time. Increasingly, researchers are also able to monitor seismic activity remotely, even from satellites. But if monitoring must be done inside designated Wilderness, it must comply with the Wilderness Act and not degrade that specific Wilderness.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service typically does not analyze any alternatives beyond the proposals submitted by the U.S. Geological Survey or other researchers. First and foremost would be the question of whether monitoring stations near or just outside the Wilderness could provide any useful monitoring data. These data may not be quite as detailed or complete as data collected from inside the Wilderness, but would likely be adequate. Unfortunately for the Glacier Peak Wilderness, the Forest Service hasn’t even looked at this sort of analysis. The Forest Service has simply failed to uphold its obligations under the Wilderness Act to protect Wilderness and merely rubber-stamped the proposal to degrade this spectacular Wilderness.

Wilderness Watch believes the federal wilderness agencies can do better and should devise plans that uphold the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act, and not simply cast aside this important national inheritance because it causes some inconvenience and challenge for researchers. We needn’t so easily sacrifice our shared wilderness heritage just for a few additional data points as is often proposed.

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kevin proescholdt

Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula and focused on the protection of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

 

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Seeing What All the Dam Fuss Is About

By Jerome Walker and Marcia Williams

After reading "A Dam Dilemma" in the Missoula Independent in mid-July, we decided to hike up to the Fred Burr Dam in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana to see what all the fuss was about. One of us is 74 years old and the other is from New York, had only camped once and had never backpacked, but we were powerfully curious.

The first night we packed in to a campsite 7.5 miles up Fred Burr Creek. That day we saw two other backpackers, but the next two days we saw no human being and enjoyed the quiet found only in Wilderness. By lunchtime of the second day we were at the dam.

photo 5 08 16 13The catwalk was constructed from nearby trees and not from sawmill boards.We noticed straight off that the partly collapsed catwalk that the private company, Fred Burr High Lake Inc., wants to repair by using a helicopter to bring in 682 pounds of boards, etc., was constructed from on-site trees, not from sawn lumber. The dam itself, which doesn't need repairs, was also constructed from on-site material. We wondered why the catwalk couldn't just be repaired using local materials again, as there were plenty of trees and deadfall around. There was a spillway to take care of any overflow, so a federal judge’s recent assertion that "leaving Fred Burr Dam unrepaired could do more damage to the Wilderness than a single helicopter" didn't make much sense either. (Federal Judge Donald Molloy recently ruled the Forest Service could authorize the private company to use a helicopter to transport materials for this minor repair to the dam.)

Hiking up to the dam we crawled over or ducked under some deadfall, but these need only to be cut with crosscut saws as a matter of routine trail maintenance for both horses and people to pass easily. At no point did we see switchbacks that would have been impossible for horses to negotiate, as the Forest Service maintains, and for sure there seemed no need for dynamite to "widen the trail", as they also claim. We also observed manure (view a video of the where the manure was seen by clicking here) all along the trail up very close to the dam itself, so clearly some horses were able to make it up there fairly recently, as we figured nobody would helicopter in manure.

photo 9 08 16 13 2This is the sharpest switchback we saw, which could be easily negotiated by a horse without any blasting with dynamite, as the Forest Service alleges would be necessary. In fact, very near this spot we found horse manure on the trail.Later we read Renee Morley's letter to the Independent in which Morley agreed, as just about everybody does, that "unnecessary helicopter flights are detrimental to Wilderness and degrade the law". Then Morley reversed course and let the Forest Service off the hook due to their lack of funds to maintain trails so that horses can pass.

Still later we learned that the Forest Service had spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on an Environmental Assessment required by Fred Burr High Lake, Inc's 2010 request for use of a helicopter in Wilderness.  This expenditure wouldn't have been necessary had the Forest Service simply insisted in the first place that the corporation, which owns the dam and water rights, obey the Wilderness Act. This would require either packing in repair materials or using on-site materials, as had been done in the past. More importantly, it raises the serious question of why the agency is spending taxpayers' money to analyze a private company's project on its private dam?

Now the Forest Service has to spend more of our taxpayer money to defend against litigation brought against them for failing to uphold the law. Since these funds, which Congress appropriates to the agency to manage Wilderness, are being wasted, maybe that's why there's not enough money left to hire crews to maintain the hiking trails in Wilderness or to build new trails, which was not the case in the past.

ImageThe Wilderness Act of 1964 (we will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year) is very clear about prohibiting ANY motorized equipment such as helicopters in Wilderness whatsoever except for rare life and death rescue situations and in rare cases where such use is necessary as the minimum requirement for proper protection and administration of the area as Wilderness. This principle is fundamental to the very concept of Wilderness. Maybe the Forest Service needs to take another look at the law and spend our taxpayer money more wisely. That could go a long way towards untangling the so-called "dam dilemmas" throughout Wilderness.

Jerome Walker, M.D.
National Board, Wilderness Watch
Missoula

and

Marcia Williams
Missoula

Jerome Walker's introduction to Wilderness Watch and Wilderness began when his late wife, Melissa served 10 years on WW's board, including a term as vice president. A retired neurologist, Jerome has concentrated on wilderness photography for the last two decades. His images can be seen on his website (jeromewalkerphotography.com). 

Marcia Williams, who is new to Wilderness but learning fast, is from New York and currently lives in Franklin, TN, where she founded and heads up Independent Trust Company.  Because of her background in finance and investment she currently is serving on Wilderness Watch’s finance committee. 

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