Eighty Years in the Making
A Legislative History of Voyageurs National Park
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The Quetico-Superior Council's proposal in 1927 for an International Peace Memorial Forest in the Rainy Lake watershed helped focus attention on the remaining forested lands and the disposition of the extensive area of cutover lands in northeastern Minnesota. The council, under Oberholtzer's leadership, had assumed a lead role in shaping policy for publicly-owned land in this region. As the economic depression of the 1930s deepened, local units of government saw vast amounts of privately-held land disappear from the tax rolls. Practically all of the large landowners within this area permitted their land to go delinquent. Many townships and communities continued to carry the cutover lands on their rolls as delinquent—hoping for a land boom that would increase assessed valuations once again.

But as the decades wore on, it became obvious that for them, the legacy of the lumbering era was an impoverished area beyond the capacity of small governmental units to revive. The Quetico-Superior Council, although recognizing that exploitation had greatly reduced the natural resources of the region, maintained that the basic character and possibilities of the area remained and that the best way to realize its potential was through federal control and management. As previously noted, for the council that meant working through and with the USFS.

Throughout most of the 1930s and into the early 1940s, the policies of most of Minnesota's governors had the effect of blocking further expansion of federal ownership into the cutover areas. Some of the pressure to resist federal ownership allegedly came from state forestry personnel who feared for their jobs if the federal forests were expanded. [28] However, many private owners, and local and county governments as well, took a more pragmatic course and actively sought federal purchase of delinquent land within their jurisdictions. For them, federal expenditures for employment and improvements as the lands came under forest restoration programs, plus the assurance of payments of 25 percent of all revenues generated on USFS lands was the preferred option. Placing these lands in state forests, frequently described as "paper forests," would simply not produce the revenues that came with federal purchase.

St. Louis County, where most of Voyageurs National Park is located, presents a good example of the thinking of local units of government in the 1930s. In 1933 and again in 1937, the St. Louis County Board passed resolutions addressed to the governor, favoring federal purchase of its lands in the Kabetogama area. The resolutions noted the economy of administration and the benefits to the county and state if these lands were placed under USFS management. [29] (In the 1960s, the board's reaction to the proposal for a national park in the same general area was quite different. The St. Louis County Board, on every vote related to the park proposal, was nearly unanimous in its opposition.)

Occasionally during discussions about future ownership and management policies of cutover lands, reference was made to some portion of these lands being placed under the control of the NPS. The only reference to anything approaching a formal proposal is revealed in correspondence between the USFS regional forester in Milwaukee and Supervisor R.V. Harmon of Superior National Forest in late summer of 1937. In a memorandum to Harmon, the regional forester said that representatives of the NPS planned to visit Superior for the purpose of conducting examinations of the "Primitive Area" (now part of the BWCAW). He said they would be examining this area to determine its suitability for a change of status from the national forest system to the national park system.

The USFS apparently regarded the NPS visit as a serious matter because the regional forester requested that the Superior National Forest supervisor prepare a report on the subject areas and that the NPS visit the chief forester's office in Washington, D.C. He asked that the report emphasize the USFS's plan for management of the area from a recreation standpoint. This would maximize the report's usefulness to the chief forester if he were confronted with legislation recommending transfer of USFS land to the NPS. [30]

Harmon's report, completed in 1937 carefully explained how the USFS management policies for Superior were more advantageous to the local communities and county government than the more restrictive policies of the NPS. Harmon titled his report "Superior National Forest vs. Superior National Park."

It is interesting to note that this same title was used a year later in published notices announcing a public debate in Duluth between Sigurd Olson, representing the Quetico-Superior Council, and Hanford Cox, who represented the Minnesota Arrowhead Association. The latter is an association of resorts and commercial establishments catering to the tourist trade in northeastern Minnesota. Olson began his remarks by asking that the record be clear as to the title of his address. He said the subject of his remarks was the Quetico-Superior International Forest. Olson told the group that he was not then nor at any time had he been in favor of a national park for this area and that the policy of the Quetico-Superior Council was always to work for public control through the USFS. [31] Although Olson accepted the explanation that the program committee's use of Superior National Park as the title for his speech was unintentional, the choice of that title may well have been deliberate. The concept of a national park for this area was no more popular in the 1930s than at the turn of the century. Nevertheless, the USFS treated all rumors and references to national park proposals very seriously.

In May 1941, the assistant chief of the USFS wrote to the regional forester in Milwaukee regarding an office visit from an official of the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. The official told him that a "Minneapolis group is instigating a movement to have a part, if not all, of Superior National Forest converted into a national park." [32] He asked the Milwaukee office to look into the rumor to determine who was behind such a move, how far they had gone to that date, and about the attitude of local people who would be impacted by such a change of status. In sum, it is fair to say that references during the 1930s and 1940s to a national park for the border lakes region—though desired by some—never matured into formal proposals.

The NPS was very much involved in the state during the New Deal years of the 1930s, not in promoting a specific proposal for a national park in Minnesota but rather working with its state park system in evaluating the state's recreational resources and upgrading established park units. The first NPS activity in Minnesota came during the New Deal years of the 1930s. Under the emergency relief program adopted during the first one hundred days of the Roosevelt administration, the NPS was given the responsibility of conducting and supervising the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the nation's state parks. [33] Two individuals, who would later play crucial roles in securing legislation authorizing Voyageurs National Park, were key people in the CCC program. Conrad Wirth served at the national level and U.W. "Judge" Hella worked at the state level in Minnesota.

Mr. Wirth, who eventually became the sixth director of the NPS (1951-1964), was given the responsibility of organizing and administering the state parks program of the CCC for the NPS in April 1933. Because of the previous cooperative efforts between the NPS and many of the state park systems, it was deemed the logical federal agency to coordinate the CCC work with the states. [34]

In Minnesota, the NPS hired a young civil engineer, U.W. Hella, to serve as engineering foreman for CCC work in the parks. Known to most of his associates by his nickname "Judge," Mr. Hella was assigned to the Omaha regional office of the NPS for a brief period in the mid-1930s. It was here that he gained valuable experience with park administration and the intricacies of shaping public recreation policies. In 1937, he returned to Minnesota to supervise the preparation of the Minnesota Park, Parkway and Recreational Plan, which was part of a nationwide study program on parks and recreation. In this capacity he developed a thorough knowledge of the Minnesota State Park system and a good working relationship with the NPS. [35] Judge Hella was named director of Minnesota State Parks in 1953 and served in that capacity until 1973. During those years he earned the reputation as a respected state official and was certainly the most knowledgeable person on parks and recreational resources in the state. His opinion on such matters was highly regarded by legislators, NPS officials and prominent conservationists. When the campaign began in the 1960s for legislative support of the Voyageurs proposal, it was Judge Hella and his friends on the Minnesota Council of State Parks who helped organize the citizens groups and associations required to carry the campaign forward. [36]

In 1957, Hella asked the NPS to return to the state to assist in updating the 1938 Park, Parkway and Recreational Plan, which the NPS had helped prepare. As part of their work in Minnesota, Director Hella asked the NPS to include an evaluation of the Northwest Angle area to determine its qualifications for national park designation. [37] For years many Minnesotans thought the Northwest Angle should be accorded national recognition by the NPS, and Hella felt this to be an opportune time to do a thorough evaluation of the site. The NPS concluded that the Northwest Angle did not qualify for NPS recognition.

Meanwhile, research work and site analysis for the revision of the 1938 report continued across the state during the summer of 1958. The work required the survey team to evaluate a number of areas thought to have some potential for state park or recreation area designation. The last stop in their journey took them to the Kabetogama Peninsula east of International Falls. The team reviewed previous studies and reports of the area and also cruised the shoreline for a closer look. On the evening of the last day, the survey team gathered in the Rex Hotel in downtown International Falls for dinner. During after-dinner conversation the survey party (which included Judge Hella, NPS planners Evan Haynes and Chester Brown, and Bernie Halvor, a recreation planner from the State Parks office), the subject turned to the merits of the Kabetogama Peninsula for state park designation. (Judge Hella recalled that Dr. Norman Baker, a leader on the Minnesota Council of State Parks, had long advocated a state park on Kabetogama and local state legislator Ed Chilgren was also favorable to the idea).

The discussion continued at the Rex with participants recalling the spectacular scenery that they had seen that day along the Rainy Lake shore. At some point in the conversation, Haynes suggested the peninsula might actually have national park possibilities. Its relative isolation kept development to a few cabin sites on both the Rainy Lake and Lake Kabetogama shores of the peninsula. The very picturesque rocky shorelines resembled the scenes along many of the lakes to the east in the BWCA. The discussion produced a consensus that national park designation for the Kabetogama Peninsula should be explored further and that some indication of local sentiment should also be determined. Before the conversation ended, Judge Hella called a prominent local businessman and close personal friend, Wayne Judy, to come down and join them. Judy brought along the secretary of the International Falls Chamber of Commerce, and after hearing of the national park suggestion, Judy agreed to seek local support for the park when definitive plans were developed for public review.

Judge Hella, recalling the meeting some years later, said that Judy was warned, "He could expect bitter opposition and personal abuse in a supporting role." Mindful of the warning, which proved to be prophetic, Judy nevertheless agreed to seek local support for this national park possibility. [38] Judy, at considerable sacrifice to his business and to himself personally, became the key contact for the NPS in the International Falls and Rainy Lake area. He also helped organize the Voyageurs National Park Association (VNPA), a statewide organization that was at the center of the long campaign for Voyageurs.

During the middle and late 1950s, Minnesota's Eighth District Congressman John Blatnik began to receive inquiries from constituents regarding the release of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings in the Rainy Lake area. These lands had been withdrawn from sale in 1928 as part of an agreement with Canada to maintain stable water levels on the border lakes. In July 1958, the NPS advised Blatnik and the BLM of the recreation survey underway for the state and that they delay decisions on release requests until the survey was completed. [39] The BLM complied with this request, and in 1959 the director of the BLM again informed the NPS that they would continue to withhold these lands. [40]

Evan Haynes, chief of the NPS Recreation Resources Planning unit, returned to Minnesota in July 1959 to make a reconnaissance survey by boat and air of the Rainy, Kabetogama, and Namakan Lakes area. His written report on this field trip noted, ". . . the peninsula and islands constitute a combination of beauty and extensive wilderness hard to equal these days." His recommendation was that the area should be seriously considered for designation as a national park, essentially reaffirming his observation of the previous autumn. [41]

Between mid-July 1959, when Haynes wrote this report, and the fall of 1961, NPS personnel made frequent visits to Minnesota for the purpose of completing the task of updating the 1939 parks and recreation plan for the Minnesota State Parks Division and to conduct further study and analysis of the Kabetogama-Rainy Lakes area to determine its suitability for the national park system. Coinciding with this federal activity was heightened interest at the state level in the Kabetogama Peninsula as a worthy addition to the state park system.

Early in 1961 Clarence Prout, Minnesota's Commissioner of Conservation, sent a memorandum to all directors in his department that he was withdrawing from sale, specific parcels of state lands on the peninsula pending completion of a study by the Minnesota State Parks Division of the area's qualifications for state park status. [42] In July 1961, rumors about a state park in the International Falls area prompted the manager of the International Falls Chamber of Commerce to contact Judge Hella for clarification. In his reply, Hella cited particular interest in 5,000 acres of mainland and islands in the Black Bay region because of its scenic and historic values. The Black Bay area was closest to the mainland on the west, and one can speculate that the acreage was more in the range of the state's ability to develop and manage than the entire peninsula, which was about 75,000 acres. Hella also said that he would be coming to the International Falls area in early August along with an NPS representative to look over the area. [43]

In September 1961, Judge Hella sent a memorandum to Governor Elmer L. Andersen, providing information on the department's recently completed long-range (10-year) plan. In this same memorandum, he also spoke of the NPS interest in the Kabetogama Peninsula as a potential site for a national park that would, "include the shoreline fringe leaving the bulk of interior lands for commercial forest development." [44] There is no evidence that the NPS ever considered limiting their interest on the peninsula to the shoreline. This declaration does not rule out conversations on the subject, but the events of the previous two years clearly indicate NPS interest in the entire Kabetogama Peninsula as a unit within the federal system. National Park Service policy at that time required that parks be large enough to maintain a reasonable balance of plants and animals as part of the natural setting and at the same time, allow for public use.

It should also be made clear that at this time, NPS personnel were careful in official correspondence to refer to the Kabetogama Peninsula as having potential as a national or federal area rather than a national park. Minnesota officials always referred to national park status for the peninsula, but then not all NPS people were, at least at this time, convinced that it qualified for this designation.

A major move toward clarifying federal intentions for Kabetogama came in October 1961 in the form of a report from the NPS Midwest Regional Director Howard Baker to NPS Director Wirth. Baker's report described a field trip completed earlier that month by state and NPS personnel that included Conservation Commissioner Prout, Parks Director Hella, and naturalist-writer Sigurd Olson. The field party agreed that "Kabetogama had potential as a national area and recommended that the director authorize full-scale studies of the area." [45]

Before Baker left Minnesota he visited Governor Andersen and told him of the recommendation for further studies. The governor, who was already enthusiastic about national park possibilities for Minnesota, was told by the regional director that it was all right to speak publicly that the NPS was considering a national park in Minnesota, but no specific location should be mentioned. [46] On October 27, 1961, NPS Director Wirth sent a letter to Midwest Regional Director Baker "authorizing advanced studies of the Kabetogama-Rainy Lake section, Minnesota." [47] Previous experience with bureaucratic inertia prompted Governor Andersen to quickly initiate a campaign of persistent pressure urging the NPS to follow through with these studies as soon as possible. He began his campaign by contacting several Minnesota Congressmen, including Walter Judd and Albert Quie, asking them to write letters to NPS Director Wirth expressing support for a national park in Minnesota and for quick completion of studies required to accomplish that objective. [48]

Director Wirth's action authorizing advanced studies for Kabetogama quickly shifted state energies away from the Kabetogama Peninsula's value as a state park. Governor Andersen's administration turned instead toward total cooperation with the NPS with the ultimate goal a national park for Minnesota. Aside from top state officials and some members of the congressional delegation, there was minimal public knowledge of these activities on the Voyageurs project. This would not come until the summer of 1962. However, it is safe to say that with advanced studies underway and the state's commitment to cooperation with the NPS, the work to establish the thirty-sixth national park in Minnesota had begun. This effort continued for another nine years until congressional authorization of the park in December 1970 and the President's signature in January 1971.

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Last Updated: 23-Jan-2009