On towers, visibility and humility

by Paul Danicic, Executive Director

Last week I had the good fortune to present on the value of wilderness to the Ely Tuesday Group. The brainchild of Ely business owner Steve Piragis, this is an active group of about 60 Ely area residents who meet for lunch on Tuesdays and hear from different speakers on many diverse topics, often centering around furthering their community. It was also very good fortune to be presenting alongside Dr. Stephen Wilbers, senior fellow with the Technological Leadership Institute at the U of M and long-time Boundary Waters Wilderness paddler and author. Having not spent enough time on trail this summer, we couldn’t resist taking a quick overnight wilderness paddle after the presentation.

At the luncheon, we talked about the value of wilderness. We spoke of wilderness as an economic engine, as a place to spend time with family and friends free of distractions, as a place where positive rights of passages happen for young people, as a place that provides ecosystem benefits like purifying water and air, where we can learn from cultural artifacts still being discovered, and where our spirit can be renewed. We talked about wilderness being special for what was not there, essentially signs of modern human activity. In other words, it is special specifically because we decided to leave it alone. This ultimate act of societal humility is precisely what gives it value to our generation and the next.

On our paddle, we decided to check out the visual impact on the wilderness horizon of the 450 foot Fernberg cell tower AT&T built earlier this year. The Friends, with pro bono assistance from Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, had argued for a 199 foot unlighted tower that would have provided comparable service without being visible within the wilderness. My co-presenter Steve had written eloquently on the impact this tower would have on the wild wilderness horizons especially as a reasonable alternative was proposed. It turned out to be a very pleasant, if brief, trip with a purpose.

Our goal was to travel to several of the sites used in a visibility study used in the court case and see what we could see.  These areas included Fall, Mud, Ella Hall and Basswood Lakes. Steve and I paddled across Fall Lake into the BWCAW immediately in sight of the new tower. It dominated the southern skyline hundreds of feet taller than the surrounding birch and spruce forest. We pulled over at the northernmost campsite on Mile Island, one of the first sites within the BWCAW.  Nearby, up a well-used overlook, the tower showed clearly above the trees.

We hiked about a quarter of the historic Four Mile Portage out of Fall Lake. On Ella Hall, a beautiful lake off the main canoe trails, we camped and paddled the lake on a beautiful starry night under the milky way. On the northwest part of the lake where the report showed the tower would be visible, a bright, laser-like red light exploded into the night sky, blinking regularly. Steve and I were both shocked by its intensity and it jolted us out of the wilderness and into the world from which this lake was set aside.

The next day, paddling up Pipestone Bay of Basswood Lake we viewed the changing fall colors and breathed the warm pine scented autumn air. Because our work and family commitments required us to leave at a certain time, we were unable to reach a specific site on Pipestone Bay that was a part of the study. “Next time.” I said as we turned the bow of our canoe south, “Or perhaps someone else can check it out, but that would require them looking for it while on a trip taken specifically to go away from all it represents.” We had a generous amount of time to discuss the strangeness of the purpose of our trip. As Steve said afterward, “Paul and I found ourselves paddling with mixed feelings, both hoping not to see the tower and searching for it to verify the claims of those who oppose it.”  From USFS staff and others, I have heard this tower is being reported as “visible” from within the BWCAW in other places.

The value of the Boundary Waters Wilderness is real enough for thousands of people to support the work the Friends does to protect it. It is real enough to warrant sacrifice from industry and from ourselves. Is this value reduced by seeing visible signs of human development from within it’s boundaries? I believe it is. The Boundary Waters Wilderness’ value comes specifically from it being a land set apart from our improvements. We should honor our culture’s sacrifice and and our collective humility by keeping it that way.

Sigurd Olson once famously said, “This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent, we can afford to cherish and protect it.” Steve and I both came away from this trip knowing we couldn’t agree more.

Trampled by Turtles help Friends reach new friends

Eight days into a paddling trip, your muscles are beginning to have an earned ache, your skin is burnt and dotted with bites, and your mind? Totally clear, except for the soundtrack that has started bubbling up unexpectedly in your mind. Many of us have experienced it, the constant flow of 80′s classics, camp songs, and current hits that seem to jump out of the deepest reaches of our brains when we least expect it.

Its an odd and frequent phenomenon and begs the question, if the Boundary Waters had a soundtrack, what would it include? Yep, it would probably include all of the above. However, for this paddler, there isn’t a better collaboration of place and music than paddling to a reel of bluegrass in your head. Even better if it’s local bluegrass – Minnesota music in a truly Minnesota place.

3 lucky people who signed up to our email list won signed posters

3 lucky people who signed up to our email list won signed posters

This past month the Friends were invited by local bluegrass heroes, Trampled By Turtles, to attend their shows in Duluth and Minneapolis as part of their 10th Anniversary Tour. It was a wonderful opportunity for us talk to new audiences about the uniqueness of the BWCA as well as the threats that face it. Our booth fielded a steady stream of concert goers each night and each TBT song from our corner of the venue was punctuated by exclamations of “I love the BWCA!” and “What can I do to help?”

We met so many new and great people and were heartened by your enthusiasm for the BWCA. Thank you to all of you who came out to the shows, stopped by and said hello, and offered your support.

Thank you also to TBT for your support and generous invitation to be a part of such a memorable tour. Here’s to the next ten years of TBT and Minnesota bluegrass in the wilderness.

AT&T announces plan to tear down 450-foot jumbo cell tower

Just in case anybody is confused, this post was published on April 1st, 2013. To see our official reaction to the erection of the AT&T mega-tower go here.

In response to the City of Ely’s ban on social media, AT&T announced plans this morning to tear down a 450 foot tall cell phone tower it just finished erecting on the Fernberg Road outside of Ely.

A clearly frustrated spokesman for AT&T sent out a series of tweets this morning expressing bewilderment about the announcement that Ely was banning social media and was considering a ban on all electronic devices.

City of Ely bans social media? But we just got done building a 400 foot cell tower! This is worse than Bloomberg banning Big Gulps!

— ATTEly (@ATTOpsEly) April 1, 2013

That’s it, if Ely wants to ban electronic devices, we’re tearing the tower down. I can’t believe this.

— ATTEly (@ATTOpsEly) April 1, 2013

All of this non-electronic fun in the wilderness will really hurt the bottom line. Thanks a lot, Ely.

— ATTEly (@ATTOpsEly) April 1, 2013

Unnamed sources in Ely tell us that it will be at least a day or so before someone from the city responds to AT&T’s decision. Not only will it take time to draft a letter on stationery, it will be a couple of days before the mail reaches AT&T’s offices.

Happy April 1st!

Spring, a time for green shoots

As the calendar turns to April, changes are happening all around us. Sap is running in the trees, snow is melting (too slowly for some of us), and birds are migrating. Soon the world will turn green, the lakes will throw off their frozen coverings, and wilderness travelers will exchange skis and snowshoes for canoes and boots.

Here at Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, we have another change to announce. As of today, I’m joining the Friends as Communications and Engagement Director. It didn’t occur to me right away that I would be starting on April 1st, and I’m left to wonder whether this is one colossal April Fools joke! I feel so lucky to be part of a team of people that work every day to protect and preserve the BWCA wilderness and the Quetico-Superior ecosystem. And by part of a team, I mean more than just the folks who work here or serve on the board. The team includes you, and everybody else who cares deeply for the Boundary Waters.

It won't be much longer, I promise.

It won’t be much longer, I promise.

That’s why I need your help. As I get up to speed here at the Friends, I need your input on what you need from us. Tell us – what can we do to make sure you are getting the information you need and want about the Boundary Waters?

I want to leave this question open ended so that you can respond in any way you like, but here are some specific items you might consider:

- Are we using Facebook, Twitter and social media effectively? What do you think we can do better?

- What information do we provide that is the most valuable to you?

- What information do you wish we’d do a better job of communicating?

I’ll open a comment thread below, so you can post your thoughts in a comment here, comment on our Facebook page, or on Twitter (tweet @FriendsBWCAW). If you have more extensive thoughts about how we can best communicate as a team of wilderness supporters, please feel free to email me (aaron@friends-bwca.org) or call me at 612-332-9630.

We do our best to make sure you have the information you need to enjoy, protect, and share the Boundary Waters. Let us know what you like and what we can do better.



Interview with Boundary Waters filmmaker Carl Martin

Carl Martin’s Boundary Waters crew seems to redefine the meaning of canoe party. His second canoe country video, released this week, shows them bouncing down rapids, climbing waterfalls, and laughing at a thunderstorm which catches them out on the lake.

The video is simply fun to watch, especially with paddling season just far enough way to inspire a bit of wilderness wistfulness. I asked Carl a few questions, from the background on the group to his advice for making high-quality Boundary Waters films.

Enjoy the video below, and then read on for his thoughts on capturing the wilderness’s character.

What was your route on this trip?

We entered through Kawishiwi, headed north to Malberg and then west over to Alice, up through Thomas and Frasier to Kekekabic.  Eddy falls was as far north as we made it.  We came back through Ogishkemuncie, Gabimichigami, and Little Sag.  Then it was a lot of little lakes back to Malberg and then out through Kawishiwi.

How many trips have you done with this group?

This video documents the ninth year of this trip, but I actually didn’t go on the first few trips, so this was only my sixth year. The guys who started it were 17 the first time they went up. We joke that they weren’t old enough to book a hotel room, so they went to the wilderness.

Carl Martin photo from recent BWCAW winter camping trip

Carl Martin photo from recent BWCAW winter camping trip

We also went on our first winter Boundary Waters trip as a group a few months back, so that might become a new tradition.

What kind of experience are you trying to convey with your videos?

The videos are about us as people and the energy, excitement, joy and challenge that we get from the Boundary Waters. I try to treat the Boundary Waters like another character, rather than having it be the subject of the film itself. There are some really great videos out there that take on the Boundary Waters as a subject and present it in a beautiful, Ansel Adams-like style, but the stories I’m interested in telling are about people and the way this amazing place affects them. Obviously, there are still nature shots and landscapes in my videos, but for me, it’s the reaction shots and the people shots that make my videos work.

Any tips for other people looking to make wilderness videos?

You can’t be too precious with your gear. The first few years that we brought digital cameras, we kept them inside a dry box, inside a bag for most of the trip, so we didn’t really come back with anything worth showing. Whereas this year, I took out my camera during a thunderstorm out on the water. It’s probably my favorite shot in the whole video, and there’s no way I would have gotten it a couple years ago. I’m not saying you should be reckless. I didn’t keep the camera out for long, and I kept it covered, but you have to be bold and trust that your gear is tougher than you think.

Do you spend a lot of time shooting video while you’re up there? How much do you have the camera on?

We always have the camera handy, but it’s definitely not always on. We cover a lot of ground on our trips and spend a lot of each day paddling and portaging, so that sort of naturally gives us a balance. 2011 was the first year that I made a video from our trip, and I didn’t really explain to the other guys, or even admit to myself, the real scope of what I was trying to achieve. So we treated the video shooting very casually at first. I had just gotten my first video-enabled DSLR, and one of my friends had just gotten a GoPro, so we were both playing around with the features and trying things out. It wasn’t until a few days into the trip, once I started going back through the footage, that I realized we might actually have something and I started becoming more intentional about getting shots.

It can take time to get the right shot. Is the rest of your group pretty accommodating of you shooting video?

As I said, the first year was pretty casual, but once we got home, and they saw the footage from the first year, everyone got on board with making these videos. They even helped me lug around all the additional camera gear I brought this year. Now we are all working together as a group to orchestrate a larger-scale documentary piece to capture our trip this coming summer since it will be the tenth year of the trip.

What keeps bringing you back to the Boundary Waters?

The Boundary Waters is kind of the perfect vacation. It is so completely different from what I usually do on a daily basis, and it has an excellent balance of relaxation as well as hard work and a sense of accomplishment.

Also, once you have the basic gear (a sleeping bag, paddle, etc.) it’s an absurdly economical vacation. Every year we each throw in $100 to cover food, gas, permits, water filters and other miscellaneous supplies, and we usually each get about $20 back at the end of the week, so it’s $80 for an eight day vacation. It’s cheaper than staying home.

Report from the Sigurd Olson Lecture Series

Last week, the Friends was proud to bring Tim Bristol, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska director, to Minnesota as part of the annual Sigurd Olson Lecture Series, co-sponsored by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness. While in the state, Bristol presented about his work on issues like management of vast roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest, and the massive Pebble Mine copper mining proposal in Bristol Bay.

Tim spoke in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Ely and Ashland, Wisconsin. His presentation at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment was recorded and is available for viewing online.

In the Institute on the Environment’s blog, writer Monique Dubos reported on Bristol’s talk:

Tim Bristol is playing offense. That’s how the Trout Unlimited Alaska director described his group’s efforts to protect Alaska’s vital watersheds at the Feb. 20 Frontiers in the Environment seminar, “Watersheds: Clean Water, Wild Places, Healthy Communities.”

Trout Unlimited Alaska is fighting to protect two critical habitats and communities that rely on them: Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska and the Tongass National Forest in the southeastern panhandle. Both areas boast productive salmon fisheries that have vital economic benefit to the communities that rely on them, said Bristol. Both are at risk from development projects that threaten the health of their watersheds.

Continue reading…

Institute on the Environment staff member Dan Kunitz also tweeted during the talk. Here are a few highlights from him:





Thank you to Tim, the organizers at each location, and everyone who attended!

A sense of stewardship

Matt Hannah

Matt Hannah

I recently had the opportunity to serve as a volunteer for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. I traveled with my wife up to Brainerd to discuss the Precious Waters film with the Brainerd Lakes Audubon Society.

Despite the temperature being -10 degrees and the night windy, 40 people from all over central Minnesota turned out for the film. A good turnout on such a cold night attests to two things: one, Minnesotans are a tough bunch; two, our lakes, rivers, and streams are very important to us.

As we opened discussion after the film, I thought to myself: “this is exactly what needs to be happening around this issue.” With so much at stake, we need to let our neighbors — and especially our legislators — know how we feel. So many different organizations have shown Precious Waters in the last few years, but ultimately everyone’s concern is the same: the lakes and rivers of the BWCA and northern Minnesota are what make this state special.

When the safety assurances of industry seem like wishful thinking and lack historical precedent, we have serious doubts about whether these projects should proceed.

Every time I talk with Minnesotans about wilderness conservation, I feel a deep sense of gratitude, but also a sense of responsibility. I am proud to live in a state where so many people have made it their responsibility to take care of our beautiful and wild places. Volunteering on this issue has deepened my connection with my fellow citizens, and to the land itself.

I felt honored to be speaking up on behalf of our lake country, and on behalf of such a great organization. Let’s make all of our voices heard so the next generation can enjoy the treasure we have today.

Request a Precious Waters DVD and resource packet and organize a showing of this documentary with your group, friends or other organization.

“Sometimes hardship creates the brightest beauty of all”

Cori after hiking across the lake at -22

Cori after hiking across the lake at -22

This past weekend, Friends staff and members strapped on their boots, parkas, and fleece masks, and headed north to YMCA Camp Menogyn for the 4th annual Winter Sampler Weekend—a three day adventure of skiing, showshoeing, and dogsledding along the Gunflint Trail.

Being new to the Friends’ staff, it was my first trip up to Menogyn for this member event and I was blown away not only by how much fun we had, but also by the deep sense of hope and purpose I returned home with.

Sitting down to breakfast on our first morning at camp, I looked around the room, matching faces with the names I had gleaned from registration. Looking around, it struck me just how diverse our group of winter enthusiasts was. With literally a 60 year span of ages between us, three generations of skiers, hikers, and snowshoers had come together this weekend out of love for a place. Each one of us had a different story, different life experience, but what ran through each person, what drove us north on one of the coldest weekends of the year, was a sense of connection and affection for the open and quiet landscapes of the BWCA. For an experience of “spiritual oneness” as Sigurd Olson once called it, and the opportunity to share those experiences with younger generations.

That morning, as kid after kid bundled themselves until all you could see were tiny openings with excited eyes behind them, and barreled out of the dining hall, it became ever more clear to me why we do the work that we do. The looks on their faces that weekend conveyed the same emotions that I have when I am in the Boundary Waters. And, though they were not my own children, disjointedly running in their boots out into the wilderness, more than anything, I want to make sure that these kids have this remarkable place to provide them face splitting joy well into the future.

My grandfather once remarked that sometimes hardship creates the brightest beauty of all. Which I think holds true in many instances—the explosion of wildflowers after a forest burns, the crystalline and sparkling landscape of negative degree weather, the sense of community that is created when a place you love becomes threatened. We as a state are facing big decisions in our near future that will undoubtedly affect the BWCA. We have no insignificant task ahead of us, but every day we spend being advocates for the place we love, every letter to a legislator, every phone call and conversation with a friend, is a voice, a vote, for the wilderness and not one goes unheard.

The work we do, bundled in the face of hardship, is to create and sustain beauty for these twenty kids, their peers, and their children in turn. I was blessed to spend three days with them, their parents, and grandparents and I can tell you, there is beauty in the next generation.

Winter Wilderness Sampler Photos by Ian Kimmer

What the Wilderness Needs

A trip to Ely offers insights into businesses which the wilderness supports, and inspiration to keep working for its future.

Photo: Flickr/Chad Fennell

Photo: Flickr/Chad Fennell

I went to Ely this Tuesday, to learn from people who live and work on the edge of the wilderness. It was refreshing to spend time in person with our Northern Communities staff member Ian Kimmer and, frankly, to just get the heck out of the office.

On my way north, I passed several billboards that spoke directly to the wild character of where I was headed. One showed a family dog sledding down a cathedral-like forest winter trail that went on forever. Another showed a couple relaxing next to a wood fire with a lovely view of an undeveloped lake, the pine trees on its shore drooping with snow. I related to both and bumped up the cruise control.

Ian and I spent the entire day with people who make their living in this country, right next to the 1 million acre wilderness. Either through running canoe tripping programs into and around the Superior National Forest or providing cabins with those lovely views of the lake, these people know the woods, lakes and trails and the way to get around them better than anyone. They also know how to make at least a little money, for themselves and their employees, sharing this asset with other people – the people the billboards are talking to.

We learned how sulfide mining is affecting not only their business but how it is affecting them personally. In some cases, the noise and traffic from exploratory drilling has actually created a significant decrease in their operating revenue. One told me point blank, mining and tourism are not compatible and his friend is considering leaving the home to which he just retired if mining occurs. Another said these waters and woods are everyone’s personal legacy. They are healthy now, even after so much conflict and division over the years. People love them in different ways. But they are providing a living for many of us. If we allow them to become degraded, we and our children lose.

He pointed out the window across the lake to the snowy white and grey wilderness beyond and said, “Your job is to preserve this. We need to do this and we need to succeed.” I couldn’t agree more and that’s a job I am honored to do.

State rushes to judgment on environmental safety of sulfide mining

Originally published on MinnPost.

Superior National Forest

Superior National Forest

On my mother’s bookshelf rests a yellowing old cookbook, a fundraiser item for the women’s circle in her childhood Presbyterian church. “Predestined to Be Good.”  Well, perhaps that was a bit of a hasty determination. A flip through the pages reveals some out-right scary recipes. Lime and lemon Jell-O in chicken salad?

The Minnesota government is suffering from the same rush to judgment in its response to proposed sulfide mining projects in the state. State agency staff with oversight responsibility have prematurely declared mine projects to be environmentally safe before seeing proof and despite the industry’s long and perfect track record of polluting lakes, rivers and streams everywhere sulfide mining has been done. This is not a recipe for making sure the same thing won’t happen here.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently worked with PolyMet Mining Company to examine possible environmental impacts for the company’s proposal, which would be Minnesota’s first sulfide mine. In 2009, the DNR decided the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) had thoroughly analyzed the potential impacts and mitigation measures to deal with pollution. It released the draft EIS for public review. But the draft EIS was a disaster. Rush to judgment #1.

The DNR and PolyMet proposed mine design would cause 2,000 years of water pollution into surrounding streams and rivers without a plan to deal with it (or pay for it). It would destroy or harm 1,600 acres of high quality wetlands without adequately mitigating those impacts. The proposal failed to collect enough information to understand the risks, failed to adequately measure the extent of likely impacts, and failed to sufficiently explore alternative designs to prevent pollution to surrounding waters.

EPA gave project an ‘F’

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was alarmed and gave the project its lowest rating of “Environmentally Unsatisfactory-Inadequate.” An unequivocal “F.”  The DNR and industry, red-faced, went back to work to revise the EIS, and they’ve been at work for nearly three years trying to figure out how to get it right. So far, Minnesotans have not seen a plan that shows that to be possible.

That hasn’t stopped Minnesota’s government from declaring the project safe. Despite the decidedly unsafe first proposal, the track record of pollution and taxpayer liability elsewhere, and an obligation to evaluate the facts in an unbiased fashion, Minnesota’s DNR is already publicly stating that this type of mining can be done right.

In the July-August 2012 edition of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, then head of the DNR’s Division of Lands and Minerals Larry Kramka, noted, “If we have this vast resource here, if we know we can do it the right way, aren’t we somewhat obliged to mine it here?” How, one must wonder, does he already know we can do it right?  Rush to judgment #2.

Serious risks downplayed

In November, Minnesota’s Environmental Quality Board released “Minnesota’s Environmental and Energy Report Card” (PDF), written with input from eight state agencies, including the DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The report is being distributed at a series of public meetings being held across the state called the “Environmental Congress.” Under a section entitled “Managing our Minerals and Mines,” our state government makes this pronouncement about sulfide mining: “With advances in processing technology and environmental impact mitigation, extraction is now economically and environmentally viable.”  Rush to judgment #3.

These statements reveal a predetermined opinion that downplays real, serious and long-lasting risks to places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior, as well as to our pocketbooks if taxpayers get left paying for the clean-up. Our state agencies should objectively analyze mine proposals and review all the facts before making determinations.

With so much at stake, we need confidence in the decisions these agencies will make. Calling Jell-O chicken salad “good” does not make it good, nor does it instill confidence about the cooks.

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