A North Woods Fight for Access To Park Lands

Minnesota motorboat crowd squares off against canoeists

In the land of trilling loons and towering conifers, few issues provoke more passion than access to - or restrictions on - the northern woods of Minnesota.

For years, a battle has raged here between kayak-carrying environmentalists on one side and snowmobile and Evinrude aficionados on the other.

Now the feud over allowing more motorized recreation in one of the nation's least-visited national parks and a necklace of some 1,000 lakes along the Canadian border is coming to a head. The outcome could set a precedent for management of federal lands throughout the nation.

This week Congress is holding hearings on bills that would give Minnesota locals more power over the management of Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Environmentalists are irked by the possibility of more motorboats in the Boundary Waters and more snowmobiles in Voyageurs. But they're absolutely outraged over legislation that would set up local boards and give them a role in determining how the preserves are managed.

"Turning over management control ... to locally controlled boards would invite local exploitation of these lands that supposedly belong to all Americans," said Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "We're talking about a war on the national parks, and this is a beachhead."

The bills are being closely watched because the clamor for local control appears to be growing. The governors of the US Virgin Islands and South Dakota are seeking management control over parks in their territory. Last year, Arizona Gov. Fife Symington sought control of the Grand Canyon during the federal government shutdown. And in Massachusetts, there are calls for the Boston Harbor Islands to be put under state and local control.

Although the bills are strongly opposed by a national coalition of environmental groups, they are backed by elements of the national "wise-use" movement and many residents living near Voyageurs and the Boundary Waters. They contend that, under pressure from the environmentalists, the federal government has unfairly reduced their access.

"I cannot overemphasize the degree of animosity, anxiety, and frustration the majority of people in northern Minnesota feel about the way the federal government is managing its land holdings in northern Minnesota," says Thomas Bakk, a Democratic state legislator from the region.

In recent years there has been a spate of lawsuits by both sides. Environmentalists have successfully sued to block the use of trucks to haul motorboats across three portages in the Boundary Waters. Snowmobilers successfully sued to lift certain restrictions on their use of Voyageurs.

Both preserves are part of the filigree of dense coniferous forest and cold, interconnected lakes that sprawls across northeastern Minnesota and Western Ontario. This was the historic route of the French-Canadian voyageurs, the fur trappers who plied the region's waters in birch-bark canoes and paved the way for European settlement of the region.

The Boundary Waters covers 1.1 million acres and several of the largest lakes in Minnesota. It has had at least some level of federal wilderness protection since 1926. Voyageurs, which was established as a national park in 1975, covers 218,000 acres, more than one-third of which is water.

But there are important differences: The Boundary Waters is managed by the US Forest Service, a unit of the Agriculture Department. Voyageurs is managed by the National Park Service, which is part of the Interior Department. And while the Boundary Waters is the most heavily used unit of the national wilderness system, Voyageurs is a relatively unknown park.

Following a bitter fight, Congress banned logging and snowmobiling in the Boundary Waters in 1978. It also greatly restricted motorboats there: only 22 lakes are open to motors, although that includes some of the largest and most popular lakes. The remainder are "paddle only" lakes used almost exclusively by canoeists.

All told, roughly one-forth of the total water surface in the Boundary Waters is open to motorboats. That would be increased to about 38 percent under bills pending in Congress. The Voyageurs bills would lift most of the federal restrictions on the use of snowmobiles, motorboats, and floatplanes in the park.

The bills introduced by Minnesotans Rep. James Oberstar (D) and Sen. Rod Grams (R) are quite similar. But both pieces of legislation are headed for rough waters: Senate Democrats have vowed to block any action that would affect the Boundary Waters during this Congress, and Interior Department officials are recommending a presidential veto if the Voyageurs bills are passed by Congress.

Meanwhile, a team of federal mediators, formed at the urging of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) has also been working in Minnesota to resolve the dispute.

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