A 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act Canoe Trip

by Paul Danicic, Executive Director

Last month, on the 50th anniversary of the day President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, I was on trail in the Boundary Waters Wilderness with a group of people I did not know. We were all there to celebrate our country’s creation of wilderness areas, discuss what wilderness means to us now, and talk about what issues it faces today and in the future. Though I was prepared for serious work, I had a great time.

The canoe trip featured a diverse group of paddlers and perspectives. We had Forest Service leaders, congressional staffers, scientists, educators, local residents, younger paddlers and wilderness advocates like me. Not all were Boundary Waters experienced but all were prepared to paddle, bone up on wilderness values and have the types of conversations about them you can only get around a campfire in the wild.

This trip was not meant to harbor panel or workshop-type discussions but to allow people to really dive deeply into how they felt about wilderness, its meaning, its threats and their own hopes for the future. The Forest Service folks were keeping notes. They want ideas in advance of their Forest Planning process coming up in a few years. We talked about values contained in the Wilderness Act – untrammelled, natural, undeveloped, opportunities for solitude or a primitive, unconfined type of recreation.

  • Canoe trip participants plan a route

    Canoe trip participants plan their route (Photo courtesy J.P. Yates)

    Untrammelled means unmanipulated; unshackled from human manipulation controlling ecological systems. Often mistaken for “untrampled,” this is a primary difference between wildernesses and other protected lands. By calling a place a “wilderness,” we collectively decide to leave it alone – a very difficult thing for us humans to do.

  • Natural speaks to wilderness areas being substantially free from the intended or unintended effects of modern civilization. Natural systems dominate after an area is designated wilderness.
  • Undeveloped assures wilderness retains its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements from human habitation. The moose and bear and fish and turtles are at home here and we are simply guests.
  • Ensuring opportunities for solitude and unconfined recreation was a thoughtful part of the language of the Wilderness Act. Knowing that the pace of modern civilization had the ability to gobble up just about every speck of land, the Wilderness Act’s authors sought to ensure a place where Americans can have “… an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium,” in the words of Sigurd Olson.

Everyone found their own value within these character traits of wilderness. But it was also agreed that wilderness means much more than these four qualities. For many people, wilderness is a spiritual realm. For others, wilderness sustains their business and their community’s economy. Many visitors come for the scenic beauty of wilderness, others come searching for a proving ground of sorts where young people can undergo a positive rite of passage.

Anything that degrades wilderness also degrades our society’s ability to experience these wilderness values, and that would be a huge loss to future generations. In discussing threats that face wilderness and in particular the Boundary Waters, it was clear how great a threat copper-nickel or sulfide mining proposals pose. In my trail group it was discussed at length. A discussion with all three trail groups at the end of the trip showed that this new type of mining so near to the Boundary Waters was a matter of serious concern to all.

The other very clear common concern was how the next generation would relate to the wilderness. Would it be only through virtual experiences? Will they value the opportunity to experience absolute silence like they can in the Boundary Waters Wilderness, one of only a handful of places left to escape human made noises? Will they vote to protect it for their children? People in my group were concerned about connecting the millennial generation to the BWCA as deeply as older, more seasoned paddlers.

I came away from this trip refreshed, and not just because I was paddling boreal rivers and lakes and camping with interesting people. I found that other people with different perspectives and from different occupations shared similar values, concerns and hopes for the future of the Boundary Waters. Another participant, Friends intern Emily Northard, and I attended the Lake Superior Wilderness Conference in Duluth immediately after the trip. There again we heard these same two concerns discussed at length.

It is good to know so many others, including those who manage the resource the Friends is sworn to protect, have this deep concern for the Border Lakes region, its woods, waters, wildlife and gateway communities. On this 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it is clear the BWCA is relevant, vibrant, much loved, and cherished. This gives me hope that it will be around 50 years from now. I can see people having a good time paddling together and discussing how important it is to their lives.

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