Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

With Boundary Waters mining in the news, here's a brief history of the BWCAW

Iron Lake in the Boundary Waters

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is located in the northern third of Superior National Forest. It is the most heavily used wilderness in the country, with about 250,000 visitors annually.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) has over 1,200 miles of canoe routes, over 1,000 lakes, twelve hiking trails, and more than 2,000 designated campsites. It also contains one of the largest contiguous areas of uncut forest left in the United States. Eagle Mountain, the highest point in Minnesota, at 2,301 feet, is within the BWCAW.

Between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago, glaciers from the last ice age shaped the lakes and rivers that the BWCAW became known for. Lakes and streams cover about 190,000 acres of its over-one-million-acre surface area.

Before European exploration and immigration, Dakota, Ojibwe, and other indigenous people lived on the lands that now comprise the BWCAW. They lived off the large variety of plants, fish, and animals in this area, using canoes to navigate the vast network of lakes and streams. Around the seventeenth century, European explorers reached present-day northern Minnesota, followed by fur traders and French Canadian voyageurs. These groups also heavily utilized canoes in their travels.

In 1902, the U.S. General Land Office set aside 500,000 acres of public lands as a forest reserve in northern Minnesota. In 1905, another 141,000 acres were set aside. Together, these lands became the Superior National Forest, dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909.

In 1926, the U.S. secretary of agriculture designated three roadless areas in the Superior National Forest. Four years later, Congress passed the Shipstead–Nolan Act, which prohibited the building of dams that would change the water levels of the border lakes region. It also banned logging within 400 feet of all shorelines.

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Quetico–Superior Committee to help the government protect and conserve the wilderness area. By 1936, due to boundary changes and new purchases, the federal government owned over two million acres of the Superior National Forest area.

In 1938, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) established the Superior Roadless Primitive Area. In 1948, the USFS also established a no-cut zone along the border. The same year, Congress passed the Thy–Blatnik Act, which allowed the government to purchase private holdings within the wilderness. In 1949, President Truman issued an executive order to designate an air-space reservation over the area. Inside the reservation, planes were barred from flying below 4,000 feet over the wilderness.

The USFS changed the name of the Superior Roadless Primitive Area to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in 1958. The National Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, and the BWCA became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. A clause in the act allowed some logging and motor use within the wilderness to continue. In 1978, Congress enacted the BWCA Wilderness Act. The new legislation ended logging and snowmobiling, restricted mining, and allowed motorboat use on one fourth of the water area in the wilderness.

In 1999, about 300,000 acres of the wilderness were damaged by a large blowdown of timber. Millions of trees blew down in the eighty to 100 mile-per-hour winds.

In the early 2000s, PolyMet Mining Corp. and TwinMetals proposed open-pit and copper mines near the Boundary Waters wilderness. In 2013, an effort began to instate a federal ban on mining in the BWCA watershed. Out of this, a campaign called “Save the Boundary Waters” was created to work to protect the area from pollution caused by mining.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the BWCA faced controversy over conflicting ideas about how to use the wilderness. Since the early 1900s, it has been a popular fishing area. Many laws and acts of Congress prohibited the use of motorboats and airplanes, which provided easier access for recreational fishermen. Tourist resorts were also removed from the land within the wilderness after the Thy–Blatnik Act was passed.

Many cities near the wilderness fought to bring the mining and logging industries back to the area. The Izaak Walton League and figures like Sigurd Olson were the primary preservation activists for the BWCA between the mid-nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author: