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A brief history of Minnesota’s Superior National Forest

The area comprises three million acres of boreal forest in northern Minnesota.

photo of landscape in superior national forest showing trees and hills
Bird’s-eye view of the Superior National Forest.

Superior National Forest is an iconic part of northeast Minnesota that comprises over three million acres (more than 445,000 of which are surface water) of boreal forest. The forest itself is part of the vast North Woods, a tourist destination in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) is within the forest, which is itself part of the Quetico Superior region that extends into Canada.

The topography of the Superior National Forest was carved about 30,000 years ago during the Wisconsinan Glacial Period by the Laurentide Ice Sheet. After thousands of years of glacial expansion and retraction, the ice sheet retreated northward, leaving behind lowland areas that flooded and became many of the lakes in the North Woods.

People have lived in the North Woods forest for more than 10,000 years. By the mid-seventeenth century the Dakota, Cree, and Assiniboine lived there, and the migrating Ojibwe established themselves on western Lake Superior by the 1680s. All of them harvested wild rice, used fire to increase agricultural yields of plants such as blueberries, and maintained ecological borderlands (ecotones) to support elk, moose, and deer populations. The French fur trade arrived in 1679 with Sieur du Lhut, and the Ojibwe and the French traded on the shores of Lake Superior throughout the eighteenth century.

In the 1850s, the US government, settler-colonists, and logging companies were eager to exploit the North Woods’ timber and mineral resources. Under ecological and economic pressure, due to the wane of the fur trade, the Ojibwe ceded most of what is now the Superior National Forest in 1854 in the Treaty of La Pointe and were promised by the US government annuities, reservations, and retained land-use rights. (Intensive lumbering later eroded their freedom to use the ceded territory through the twentieth century, but the Ojibwe reasserted their treaty rights in the 1980s and 1990s; subsequent court cases upheld their right to hunt, fish, and harvest on ceded land.)

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During and after the treaty era, deposits of iron ore and myths of gold drew miners and capitalists to the North Woods. Miners and their families founded or expanded settlements, such as Ely, while commercial logging began in earnest in the 1890s. Tourism was advertised for the National Forest as early as 1915, and in 1919 as a primeval wilderness perfect for “the camper, the fisherman, and the canoeist.”

As European forestry conservation practices — setting aside tracts of land for future use, suppressing fire, and wilderness tourism — gained ground in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, large tracts of the North Woods became cut-over wasteland. Some conservationists proposed setting aside forested land. Minnesota’s chief fire warden Christopher C. Andrews, for example, suggested the idea in 1891. Meanwhile, wildlife enthusiasts (like the Canadian W. A. Preston, who was concerned about the looming demise of the moose from poaching) called for the creation of an international reserve.

Through shared concern and cross-border communication, three things happened in rapid succession in 1909. First, the state of Minnesota established the Superior Refuge in the northeast for moose and caribou (but allowed for the hunting of wolves and beavers). Second, Theodore Roosevelt declared 644,114 acres the Superior National Forest on February 13. Third, Canada established the Quetico Forest Reserve (Quetico Provincial Park), the Superior Forest’s twin, on April 1. Presidents William H. Taft (1912), Calvin Coolidge (1927), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1936), and John F. Kennedy (1962) further expanded the Superior National Forest.

Throughout the twentieth century, environmental activists fought to preserve wilderness within the forest—though not all of it. In 1926, Secretary of Agriculture William Jardine signed off on the establishment of the Superior Roadless Area to provide outdoor wilderness recreation. In 1931, the Shipstead-Nolan Act protected federal shorelines from logging and flooding — inhibiting any future dam plans. Likewise, although only around 40 percent of land within the forest’s boundaries was publicly owned by the 1920s, as cutover property was abandoned in the 1930s and 1940s, the national forest added 60 percent of formerly privately-owned land to public ownership.

Infrastructure projects completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s facilitated logging inside the forest, as did trucks, chainsaws, and dozers. In 1949, Truman’s Executive Order of an Air Space Reservation over the Roadless Area curtailed air traffic, effectively ending the use of sea planes by resorts in the Roadless Area. Later, the 1964 Wilderness Act created a federal wilderness system and the BWCA, while President Jimmy Carter’s 1978 Public Law 95-495 (BWCA Wilderness Act) permanently ended logging within the Boundary Waters, though not in the rest of the forest.

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