Eighty Years in the Making
A Legislative History of Voyageurs National Park
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The decade of the 1970s, often called the environmental decade, was characterized by aggressive congressional and executive action to halt the continued deterioration of the nation's natural environment. Newsweek magazine devoted most of its January 23, 1970 edition to what it called, "The Ravaged Environment." The articles in this special edition described serious cases of air, water, and soil pollution, shameful waste of natural resources, and growing public concern over what many were calling our national environmental crisis. Environmentalists, armed with a whole "new" vocabulary, emerged as the leaders in a crusade dedicated to restoring the nation's natural systems to a healthier state. The popular press and scientific journals were filled with articles using terms such as ecology, ecosystem, biosphere, preservation, environmental quality, land ethic, etc.

In response to public demand for strong measures to halt the excesses of industrial polluters and stimulate enforcement action on the part of state and local government, the Congress in late 1969, passed the most comprehensive and far-reaching environmental legislation in history—the National Environmental Policy Act. But public interest in environmental matters went well beyond pollution abatement measures. It also included concern for the quality of the nation's natural resources, including threats to vanishing scenic landscapes. According to historian Samuel Hays, "The environmental movement actually began to take shape in the late 1950s and early 1960s, largely around objectives associated with public land management." [342] There were also demands for expansion and better care of existing public outdoor recreation facilities and establishment of new ones, including new national parks and national recreation areas.

Many Minnesotans and growing numbers from across the country viewed the Voyageurs proposal as wholly consistent with the national mood for protection of our natural resources. Many who testified at the International Falls hearings used terms like "protection" and "preservation" in making their case for national park status on Kabetogama. Such sentiments were no doubt on the minds of many members of the more than 1,000 organizations that had endorsed Voyageurs by early January 1970. However, the Voyageurs proposal, widely acclaimed at home in Minnesota and among the leading conservation organizations in the nation, was hopelessly mired in bureaucratic wrangling, indifference, and inertia in Washington.

The bottlenecks were well known—the Bureau of the Budget, the Department of the Interior, and Chairman Aspinall of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. Governor Levander made some contacts in Washington in early January to see what might be done. In a letter to Elmer Andersen he simply repeated what was general knowledge—the budget office wouldn't act until the Interior Department sent them their report on Voyageurs. And Aspinall would not move until the budget office released funds for land acquisition. [343] Levander believed that Nixon was going along with the budget office's new policy that no park authorizations would be made without appropriations. To make the situation even more discouraging, Wayne Judy, VNPA board member from International Falls, reported that park opponents believed they had the Voyageurs project blocked and that the park was seldom mentioned around town. [344]

The Washington stalemate and how it might be broken, became the central topic of discussion during VNPA executive committee meetings. It was during one of these meetings that Rita Shemish reported a suggestion made to her by Robert Herbst of the national Izaak Walton League office. Herbst's advice was to make direct contact with Nixon aides and advisors at the highest level. He specifically mentioned Charles Colson (later of Watergate fame), who was Nixon's special counsel on environmental affairs. She also received a letter from Charles Stoddard, former Interior Department regional official, who told her that personal contacts with those close to Nixon were very important. "Grave decisions are made largely by personal relationships." [345]

On the strength of these suggestions and those of VNPA board members, the association opened a campaign directed at the White House. Members were urged to write to the president as well as Budget Director Mayo and Secretary Hickel. Shemish, leading by example, began writing twice weekly to the president, each time announcing the total number of endorsing organizations. In her April 6 letter she was able to say that over 1,200 organizations nationwide had endorsed the proposal for a national park on the Kabetogama Peninsula. She also wrote a three-page letter to Charles Colson explaining the merits and the broad national appeal of the Voyageurs proposal and then commended the president for acknowledging in his State of the Union message, the need to set aside funds for more parks and recreational areas. [346]

Shemish saved her most urgent plea for assistance in her "contact President Nixon" campaign for U.S. Representative Clark MacGregor, a longtime acquaintance and senior Republican from the Twin Cities. Many other VNPA members from the Twin Cities area were personally acquainted with MacGregor and shared his political philosophy. It was their hope that with the new Republican administration, MacGregor's influence at the White House would be substantial and that he could be counted on to keep the park project on track. However, after one year of the Nixon administration it was bound up in a three-way tussle between two executive department offices and a House committee chairman. And MacGregor's office, according to VNPA leaders, had been anything but aggressive in its efforts to remove bureaucratic roadblocks and get the proposal to the legislative phase. Noting this, Shemish sent a letter to MacGregor pleading with him to get moving on Voyageurs. "You and only you are the only man in Washington—indeed, the entire country—who can get us this very important approval from President Nixon. Since you are planning to run for the Senate I can't image a finer political feat on your part than to be able to come back and tell the people of Minnesota that you personally were instrumental in getting VNP approval from President Nixon." [347]

Two months later, with still no official action by either the Interior Department or the budget office, Shemish sent Representative MacGregor another letter, this time minus the "niceties" of earlier correspondence. "Clark, will you please tell me when you plan to start doing something in behalf of Voyageurs National Park. We have counted on you, as an identified Nixon Republican, to move things along with the Department of Interior and get approval from the administration." [348] She repeated how important positive action on his park would be in his senate campaign. Then, perhaps to shame him into action, recounted how Sigurd Olson, faced with a similar bureaucratic delay on an Olympic National Park bill, went directly to the offending department, explained the urgency of the situation, and within twelve hours, the bill was cleared for congressional hearings.

Shemish's impatience and frustration with the deadlock may have focused on only one member of the Minnesota delegation, but in a television editorial, George Rice of WCCO-TV in Minneapolis blamed the entire delegation for lack of enthusiasm for "pushing the park through political channels." [349] Rice suggested that they were trying to play the park issue both ways by talking encouragingly with park advocates while trying not to offend the timber and pulp interests who didn't want a park. He thought some of the congressmen wanted the report stuck just where it was.

The day before the WCCO-TV editorial, Elmer Andersen addressed a group of University of Minnesota students who were participating in events surrounding the first Earth Day observance. His remarks may well have motivated the writers at WCCO to editorialize on the dilemma facing park supporters at that time. In his speech Andersen characterized the stalemate in Washington as illustrative of just one more frustration in a "decade of indecision" for park advocates. He said it was hard to believe that the Interior Department and Congress would continue to delay action on a proposal that had the overwhelming support of the public. In the spirit of the day, Andersen challenged students to take up the cause for Voyageurs as a practical environmental achievement. [350]

The level of frustration over the delays in Washington was perhaps greatest with the leaders of the park movement—the executive committee of the VNPA. Most were business and professional people unaccustomed to the kind of foot-dragging maneuvers, interdepartmental squabbling, and lethargic behavior on the part of some members of Congress, all combining to hold back action on the Voyageurs legislation. They feared it would be difficult to hold on to the high level of enthusiasm for the cause among the general membership if the stalemate dragged on much longer. It was particularly upsetting when plausible explanations for the delay were not forthcoming. Rumors were abundant but explanations were rare.

VNPA members familiar with the timber and wood products industry were especially wary of the role Boise might be playing in softening the support of some business people and public officials towards the park and in reinforcing local opposition to the proposal. Even though they were issuing few public statements detailing their opposition, Boise was suspected by some VNPA leaders of working behind the scenes to achieve their aims. Boise Cascade was careful to explain and clarify its position on Voyageurs to the state administration and the NPS. For example, one such letter was sent to the NPS director's office on January 28, 1970. [351] In this letter and in all Boise Cascade communications on the park, no mention is made of their long-range plans for private second-home development on Rainy Lake by their newly acquired land development subsidiary. Elmer Andersen, when speaking for the park proposal had, on a number of occasions, alerted his audiences to what he believed to be Boise's real intentions on Kabetogama—lakeshore residential development. He summed up his feelings on this subject in a letter to a park critic in southern Minnesota. Although not mentioning Boise or any other developer by name, he said, "We have the opportunity for the compound value of preserving a beautiful area for all time while also keeping it available for public use rather than having it ultimately divided up and put into a few private hands." [352]

Private lakeshore development, often poorly planned and unregulated, was what had already compromised the scenic values of hundreds of lakes in the state. It was the fear that this pattern of shoreline development and loss of public access would be repeated on the shores of the Kabetogama Peninsula that brought many into the movement for a national park. With these concerns in mind and the certain knowledge that the general public was unaware of the potential for full-scale shoreline development by a major corporation, the VNPA executive committee began discussions on a recommendation by one member that, "a stronger, more militant approach be adopted regarding Boise Cascade's policy on Voyageurs." [353] Several members had already been gathering information, most of it published, about questionable land speculation activities by Boise Cascade. There was some discussion about hiring legal assistance to check on some allegations and prepare a report on the topic. But former Governor Andersen counseled against plans to push the case publicly, thinking it ill advised at that time in their campaign for the park. There was consensus, however, to continue collecting data on the subject of lakeshore development, but the material would be used only if necessary during the congressional hearings or with the Minnesota legislature. [354] Martin Kellogg, a member of the committee and later president of the VNPA, best expressed the course the association would take on the Boise matter when he said, "It wasn't necessary to attack Boise Cascade directly but to point out the environmental damage done at other land development projects and what would undoubtedly be the fate of Kabetogama unless it is preserved as a national park." [355]

Rita Shemish's urgent plea for letters to Washington officials to break the stalemate on Voyageurs began to bear fruit in early May of 1970. In a letter from Congressman MacGregor on May 4 she learned that the Interior Department had submitted a favorable report on Voyageurs to the budget office. She also learned that he was very angry at her repeated claims that he had not moved aggressively on Voyageurs legislation. In his letter MacGregor stated, "Interior has submitted a favorable report to the Bureau of Budget for clearance. On the basis of my recent conversations, I am convinced that the Budget Bureau is dealing expeditiously with the Voyageurs proposal. The proposal is not stalled. It is moving." He concluded on a somewhat acerbic note that, "any efforts on your part to spread poison concerning my role in this matter will seriously damage the prospects for continued progress." [356] Representative Albert Quie also sent a letter to Shemish noting the Interior Department's action in sending a favorable report to the budget office. [357] Quie's letter further explained that the budget office would now be in a position to develop an administrative policy on Voyageurs.

The MacGregor and Quie letters shed some light on the reasons for the long delay in gaining administrative approval for Voyageurs. In the previous administration, Secretary Udall had openly favored the park proposal and so the Interior's approval was never in question and the Bureau of the Budget played no major policy role in such matters. Looked at in the light of the Nixon administration's more complicated policy formulation procedures, Representative MacGregor's "assignment" was not an easy one to accomplish. President Nixon took office with a commitment to tighten the budget and an expanded role for the Bureau of the Budget was viewed as a means of accomplishing that goal. The new process required that all affected agencies provide reports relevant to the Voyageurs proposal and that these reports be reviewed and studied before the budget office made its recommendation.

Representative Quie in a letter to Rita Shemish written May 11, reveals what might have been the most important reason for the lengthy delay in securing budget office approval for the park proposal. He wrote that the budget office had just received comments on the proposal from the Department of Agriculture and that it was the last agency to respond to the budget office's requirement that all such proposals pass through its office for cost approval.

Additional comment on the Agriculture Department's delay came a week earlier in a story by Albert Eisele, Washington bureau reporter for the Duluth newspapers. Eisele reported that Representative MacGregor said that the USFS sharply disagreed with the Interior Department's report on Voyageurs because of the inclusion of the Crane Lake addition and that there was a problem in "harmonizing" the Agriculture and Interior Department reports. [358] This would indicate that the Agriculture Department had more to do with the "stalemate" than was generally known at the time. A protracted delay in submitting their report can be seen as working to their advantage since it could have resulted in forcing the Voyageurs issue into the next Congress where its chances of survival would have been slim.

Later events in moving the park bill through Congress showed that the time factor was crucial, especially in the last weeks of the session. Protracted delay by the Agriculture Department in the spring could well have doomed the Voyageurs bill for that session of Congress. Longer delay was averted primarily due to Rita Shemish's aggressive letter writing and telephone campaign to elected officials in Washington urging them to pry the proposal from a bureaucratic stranglehold.

Fortunately for park advocates, the Voyageurs proposal cleared the budget office in mid-May and Secretary Hickel announced the Interior Department's favorable report on Voyageurs on May 27. As soon as Blatnik received word that the favorable report from the Interior had arrived in congressional offices, he wrote to Rita Shemish. "The ball is back in our hands again. Congress has the initiative and hopefully we can more expeditiously move toward enactment during this session." [359]

The leadership of the VNPA hailed the recommendation on Voyageurs from the Interior Department as the most important achievement to date in the campaign for legislative authorization. After savoring congratulatory messages from federal agencies, members of Congress and conservation leaders, they began making preparations for the Washington, D.C. hearings, which Congressman Aspinall had called for mid-July. Association leaders began working through a list of potential speakers who would present the case for Voyageurs at the hearings. VNPA president Andersen again urged those chosen to testify to avoid the two major controversial issues in their prepared testimony—public hunting and the Crane Lake addition. [360]

Some VNPA members who were well acquainted with Governor Levander encouraged him to drop the hunting and trapping issue before the scheduled hearings. This would avoid an embarrassing confrontation with members of the congressional committee who were committed to upholding the long-standing NPS policy that prohibited these activities. VNPA leaders also asked members at large to write letters to the governor opposing his stance on hunting. Archival records show that he received numerous letters during June of 1970. When responding to these letters, the governor would defend his position by stating, "I have advocated public hunting as a management tool to control game populations in accordance with the management program which would be designed by, and mutually acceptable to, federal and state agencies." [361]

Levander's response was essentially the position of Conservation Commissioner Leirfallom, who had consistently expressed the concern over federal control of the resources of the boundary region. When Larry Koll, the governor's environmental affairs advisor met with the VNPA executive committee on June 4, he told them that the governor felt he did not have to defend the position he took in 1967. "At this time it would be unnecessary and unwise to revise in any way his previous position." [362]

During the briefing on the Washington hearings, Rita Shemish reported a telephone conversation with NPS legal counsel, Mike Griswold, who said they could expect opposition at the hearings from three groups: the timber industry, which would support the Boise Cascade position; anti-big government people; and the U.S. Forest Service, which was working quietly but effectively in opposition to the Crane Lake addition. [363] In the same conversation, Griswold commended the VNPA for its splendid effort in mobilizing support for the Voyageurs proposal. He said it was an effort second only to the historic California redwoods crusade, which brought about the establishment of Redwood National Park in 1968.

As the VNPA was lining up its Minnesota speakers to fill the slots allotted by the Subcommittee, it became apparent that not all the voices from Minnesota would be speaking in favor of Voyageurs. On June 17, the State Senate Public Domain Committee issued a position paper on H.R. 10482. The committee argued that it had a responsibility to study the Voyageurs proposal on behalf of the legislature and that action on the Blatnik bill be postponed until a cost-benefit analysis was ordered and completed. The committee's position was that only then would the state have sufficient data and information to make a proper decision on Voyageurs. The paper also said the historical and scenic values of the proposed park site had been overstated. The committee apparently believed that the study they were recommending would reveal deficiencies in those values. Of course, these were the very attributes that were at the heart of the NPS's and Voyageurs supporter's arguments for national park status. [364]

To counter the claims of the Senate Public Domain Committee, Representative Thomas Newcome, a conservative and chair of the Minnesota Resources Commission (MRC), was authorized by the MRC to testify at the Washington hearings and to present the MRC's findings on Voyageurs. Governors Andersen and Levander had always held that the MRC, which had endorsed the park several times over the previous five years, was properly constituted and authorized to act on behalf of the Minnesota legislature in this matter. Governor Levander downplayed the Public Domain Committee's position noting that the committee really spoke for a few people in the Senate who were opposed to the park. However, whether he realized it or not, Levander had "dissenters" within his own cabinet when it came to supporting his publicly proclaimed position on Voyageurs.

Less than a month before the Washington hearings, Commissioner Leirfallom wrote a memorandum to Larry Koll, Levander's chief advisor on environmental affairs, suggesting that the state should reassess its position with respect to the inclusion of the Crane Lake area in the proposed park. He admitted that these were second thoughts on Crane Lake. His original reasons for including the Crane Lake area were tied to an assumption that the NPS might amend some of their policies to conform more closely to modern resource management, e.g. public hunting to control animal populations in the proposed park area. He said he now realized that the NPS wasn't going to relax their "old line rules" and thought that the state shouldn't put more fishing areas into their "deep freeze" and add 38,000 more acres to no-hunting status. His memorandum also included praise for USFS management policies for the Crane Lake Recreation Area. Leirfallom closed with a question that revealed his antipathy toward the NPS. "Should it [Crane Lake] be swallowed up by a system that many believe to be outmoded?" [365]

In a second memorandum to Koll five days later, Leirfallom referred again to the contrasting management practices of the NPS and the USFS. He also said the governor could change his position on Crane Lake and thereby expedite park establishment immediately. On this point, Leirfallom had company among park advocates inside the VNPA, albeit for different reasons. They saw it as an encumbrance that could lead to no park legislation at all. Leirfallom, however, saw it as a philosophical issue—multiple-use management versus resource management that focused on preservation. [366] But in spite of differences of opinion between the governor and some officials in his Conservation Department, Levander held firm to his position that the Crane Lake Recreation Area remain in the Blatnik bill.

The staff of the House Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation moved quickly to make arrangements for the Washington hearings, which were scheduled for July 17-18. Both sides were well acquainted with each other's positions and could anticipate hearing many of the same arguments that had been presented at earlier hearings, public meetings, and in the media in Minnesota. The VNPA would point to public opinion polls which showed that Voyageurs, with its emphasis on protection, preservation and recreation, was a popular issue across the entire state.

Voyageurs continued to attract open support from the leadership of both political parties, thus retaining its reputation as a proposal that always enjoyed strong bipartisan support. There was very little open discussion or opposition to the park on the part of state legislators, mostly because they had no specific park-related legislation to consider. Those who did express opinions generally voiced familiar doubts and concerns. State Representative Alfred E. France of Duluth didn't think that Voyageurs would be a "high quality" national park. State Senator Rudy Perpich, an Iron Range liberal who became governor in 1976, said it was just another "land grab." Duluth conservative Representative Duane Rappana said the concept of a national park for Kabetogama was "too restrictive." Senators Ray Higgins from Duluth and O.A. Sundet from rural southern Minnesota best exemplified exceptions to this pattern of limited opposition. Both held strong opinions in opposition to the park and effectively used their membership on the Public Domain Committee to promote their views.

To counter the opposition voiced by Senator Higgins, two Duluth liberals—Representatives Earl Gustafson and Willard Munger—made their support of the park proposal an important part of their campaigns. A third candidate, Ralph Doty, was Higgins' opponent for his Minnesota Senate seat. He also made support for Voyageurs a central part of his campaign and was successful in defeating Higgins in the fall election. However, the examples just cited were exceptions rather than the rule as most candidates in northeastern Minnesota avoided taking strong stands for or against the park. [367]

The congressional hearings held in Washington on July 17-18 presented another opportunity for both sides of the controversy to present their arguments. For opponents, it was a chance to present their position before a panel that could better understand how the Voyageurs proposal related to the broader issue of natural resource management and the kinds of pressure the timber industry was exposed to nationally. For park proponents, especially the VNPA, it was an opportunity to show the strength of their case for Voyageurs as evidenced by the widespread public support generated during three years of intensive campaigning.

Over 1,300 organizations had endorsed the park by the time of the 1970 Washington hearings. Park supporters arriving in Washington for the hearings could count among their number prominent public figures and leading conservationists. They were well rehearsed and eager to lay before Chairman Taylor's subcommittee the logic and significance of their cause. But their carefully prepared case for Voyageurs was severely compromised by an unfortunate turn of events set in motion by the testimony of one of their chief supporters—Governor Levander.

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Last Updated: 23-Jan-2009