Lost in the recent news about gray wolves being dropped from the endangered species list — again, last time, we mean it, no kidding, for real — was a court ruling over the use of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It will not be the last canoe country court case you will read about.
The subtitle of the legislation to create the present-day BWCA in 1978 should have been Full Employment for Lawyers Working for Environmental Groups, Locals and Government Agencies. The most recent case, issued Friday by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected a claim by Wilderness Watch and three other groups that the Forest Service’s decision to build a snowmobile trail from McFarland Lake to South Fowl Lake was illegal. (Read the opinion here.)
The court said North and South Fowl lakes are not in the BWCA according to the official map (“located to the right of the dark black boundary line”), a defeat for the environmental groups. The court also said the Forest Service can’t build the trail until it completes an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the noise created by the snowmobiles, a defeat for government and local interests.
Trail is a reroute of a previous one
It seems at the edge of trivial to be suing over a snowmobile trail in such a spot — South Fowl Lake? Not even a real Minnesota lake! It’s man-made, built in 1934 by damming a river. And the snowmobile trail is a reroute of a previously existing one that was closed in 2003 after it was determined that the trail was in the wilderness area. Oops, do-over.
And yet: There aren’t supposed to be any roads in a roadless wilderness. As a buddy of mine put it, he was canoeing on the river — sun glistening on the water, no sounds other than the splash of the paddle — and up on the side of a hill was the hideous slash of what looked like the old trail. It will take decades for tree growth to conceal the damage. The new one is going to be just as ugly.
And yet: There exists the issue of whether the government ever intended North and South Fowl lakes to be a part of the BWCA at all, or how much of them are included, or if only the south bank of the river is a part of the wilderness area. You would think that after 30 years of working on it, the map would be pretty well finished. Not so. Or at least the ragged edges remain in dispute.
One of many, many disputes
The clumsiness in this contest is a small dot on a long timeline of weird and wacky events related to canoe country. Highlights are many. Here are two more.
Favorite BWCA collective action: More than 200 protesters march at a John Denver fundraising concert for Sen. Wendell Anderson’s re-election campaign in 1978. (True, several picketers may have been protesting John Denver, period.) Wendy loses.
Favorite BWCA legislative ineptitude: The U.S. House passes “final” wilderness bill on Oct. 15, 1978, on the last morning of the 95th Congress; the U.S. Senate really, really wants to vote on the same measure but can’t find the bill because someone has lost it. Really. Senators finally locate the paperwork, pass it, and Congress adjourns a few minutes later.
Getting off to that kind of slow start probably guaranteed that lawyers would be involved.