Eighty Years in the Making
A Legislative History of Voyageurs National Park
NPS Logo


Legislation authorizing the secretary of the Department of the Interior to establish a Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota was signed into law by President Nixon on January 8, 1971. This action occurred almost eighty years after the Minnesota Legislature, in April 1891, approved a concurrent resolution requesting that the president create a national park in Minnesota by, "setting apart a tract of land along the northern boundary of the state, between the mouth of the Vermilion River on the east and Lake of the Woods on the west..." [4] (Much of the territory identified in the 1891 request was incorporated in the final legislation authorizing Voyageurs National Park.)

Although the legislature's request was never acted upon by Congress, conservationists would continue to press for some form of federal protection for the forest and water resources of northeastern Minnesota and especially the border lakes region. Their persistence was buttressed by a growing national awareness that much of the nation's natural resources were being pillaged and squandered with little regard for future needs. The federal government finally recognized this public concern for more careful management of these resources. In a dramatic departure from the previous practice of generous land disposal policies, the Congress on March 3, 1891, enacted the Forest Reserve Act. This legislation authorized the president to establish forest reserves on lands in the public domain. [5] Significantly, the Minnesota Legislature's request for a national park followed by one month the congressional action on forest reserves and five months the establishment of two national parks, Sequoia and Yosemite.

The sentiment for forestland preservation through reserves and parks, which was the basis for the legislature's action, was not popular in the wooded lake region of northeastern Minnesota. Its inhabitants saw the region as one with a resource base that clearly distinguished it from the other emerging economic regions in the state. Pine forests, minerals, and water were the dominant resource assets, and the region's entrepreneurs wanted a free hand in their development and utilization. Examining a map of pre-settlement vegetation supported the regional claim for uniqueness. Such a map reveals a state divided into three broad environmental zones: a fertile prairie region in the southwestern half of the state; a pine forest and bog region in the northeast; and a mixed forest-grassland transition zone in-between. [6]

Figure 3: Presettlemente Vegetation.

As late 19th-century settlement progressed across the state, it became evident that agriculture would be the dominant land use in the prairie and transition zones, while mining and lumbering would prevail over the northeastern third. Human adjustments and adaptations to this varied pattern produced distinct regional economies with their attendant economic and political philosophies. In addition to these regional contrasts was the reality of an expanding urban region in and around the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. For an ever-increasing number of its residents, the "North Country" represented the state's prime outdoor recreation area. The rapid depletion of the wood and wildlife resources of northern Minnesota and the absence of a resource management program were major concerns for many residents in the expanding urban region around Minneapolis and St. Paul.

At this point in the state's economic history, logging interests were engaged in a highly profitable enterprise removing timber from the pineries of northeastern Minnesota—an activity restrained only by the status of the marketplace at the moment. Influential business leaders as well as politicians who were eager to protect the lumber interests from unfriendly government regulation, vigorously opposed any regulatory measures that threatened to interfere with this highly lucrative practice. For their part, the timber industry made certain that workers and residents who were dependent on the local logging activity understood the logic and "advantages" of the system as it operated at that time. This was dramatically illustrated in December 1891 when a public meeting was held in Duluth to discuss the national park proposal still being advocated by the Minnesota Forestry Association. The chairman of the meeting expressed the prevailing local sentiment when he stated that the park proposal was a "scheme to deprive Duluth of its tributary territory. There is a concentration of political influence in St. Paul and Minneapolis which is always manipulated against the rest of the state." [7] In obvious agreement with this sentiment, the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, another strong defender of "regional turf," announced its opposition to the park proposal several days after the public meeting. [8]

Another national park proposal was advanced eight years later, in 1899, when the Minnesota Federation of Women's Clubs campaigned for a national park in the area that eventually became the Chippewa National Forest. [9] Again, northern Minnesotans saw the meddling hand of the people from the "south" who were attempting to impose their values as they related to the utilization of the region's natural resources, thus interfering with the established resource utilization practices in northeastern Minnesota. One Duluthian put it quite candidly when he said, "Our people are tired of outsiders misrepresenting these northern lands as useful only as the hunting and playground of a few nabobs who have more money than brains." [10]

It is evident from these and other similar accounts that, even before the turn of the century, legislation advocating preservation or restraint in the use of the natural resources of northeastern Minnesota would be met with suspicion and opposition from business and political leaders in the region. This was especially true if the proposals involved a federal agency. Although a number of arguments were presented as justification for such opposition, two were most frequently and forcefully advanced: Any proposals or legislation inspired by outsiders, primarily Twin Citians; and proposals that were considered "land grabbing" schemes of the federal government. Both of these arguments were employed with considerable frequency during the early part of the century, in the 1930s and again in the 1960s to blunt the efforts of advocates for national park status for any border lakes segment.

The first official step toward public control of the border region was taken with the establishment of the Superior National Forest in 1909. In the same year, the Provincial government of Ontario established the Quetico Provincial Forest Preserve along its forest and lake boundary with Minnesota. (The Quetico Reserve became Quetico Provincial Park in 1913.) [11] Although the 1909 boundary of Superior National Forest encompassed much of the border lakes region east of Crane Lake, it did not include Crane Lake. Nor did it include the three larger lakes to the northwest—Namakan, Kabetogama, and Rainy—which are now included within Voyageurs National Park. Nevertheless, the establishment of Superior National Forest introduced the potential for comprehensive federal protection of the wilderness values along the entire border lakes region from Grand Portage on Lake Superior west to International Falls.

Even before Superior National Forest was established, the unique scenic values of the border zone were recognized by conservationists, including Christopher C. Andrews, Minnesota's first forest commissioner. In 1905 he submitted a request to the General Land Office asking that public land along a major segment of the border waterway be withdrawn from sale. Several years later, in 1909, these lands were included in the boundaries of the newly established national forest. [12]

In 1917 the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) conducted a major study and review of its recreational facilities. This study which followed by one year, congressional action creating the National Park Service (NPS), sought to advise the USFS as to how it might identify and administer its recreational facilities. Some historians have suggested that the timing of the study was more than coincidental with the establishment of the NPS. They also record a growing uneasiness among high-level USFS administrators regarding the congressional practice of creating national parks out of scenic USFS lands. [13] In part to stem this kind of land transfer, the USFS embarked on a system-wide program involving evaluation of especially scenic areas under its jurisdiction. The intent of the studies was to determine if the management policy in these areas should focus on esthetic values as opposed to more traditional utilitarian uses.

One such area to come under this review procedure was the boundary waters region of Superior National Forest. In 1919, Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect employed by the USFS, came to the region to assist in the development of a recreational plan for Superior and the boundary waters area especially. Carhart's plan, completed in 1921, represented a radical departure from past practice, because it advocated a management policy that would facilitate the "enhancement, preservation and development of the canoeing features of the Superior National Forest." [14] Recent research emphasizes that Carhart's plan was not a wilderness plan, as we understand the concept today. Rather, it envisioned facilities (chalets and hotels) at strategic locations to accommodate the many tourists who may wish to, "Withdraw from civilization's complexity without having to sacrifice too much of civilization's comforts." [15] In this way he was apparently borrowing a technique of the NPS at that time, which was to promote attendance by providing access to the scenic areas in many of its western parks. However, the importance of the Carhart plan really resides in the fact that for the first time the USFS seemed to be willing to entertain formal plans that highlighted the recreational values of national forests.

The first internal test of the USFS plan to protect wilderness values in Superior National Forest came shortly after the adoption of the Carhart-inspired recreation plan for Superior. During the 1920s the nation embarked on an extensive road building campaign supported by congressional action that provided federal funds through what were called "good roads" bills. Communities and tourist associations in northeastern Minnesota campaigned strenuously for a share of these funds and supported road projects that led to and were constructed within Superior National Forest. Staff foresters with Superior believed an expanded road network would facilitate management and, especially, fire protection within the forest and thus lent their support to the road expansion effort. By 1923. conflicting road plans for the region resulted in bitter controversy between conservationists, who backed a conservative approach including a complete ban on roads in wilderness areas, and local resort owners and tourist associations who backed a more extensive road system. Many conservationists who were close to the situation, like members of the Minnesota division of the Izaak Walton League, finally concluded that the best way to guarantee a roadless status for the border lakes region would be through the enlargement of Superior National Forest. Although encountering difficulties and frustrations with USFS bureaucracy, conservationists still saw the single-agency federal management of the area as the best hope for long-term protection of the natural resources in the border lakes region. Therefore, they supported congressional legislation advanced by Representative Charles Fuller of Indiana that would have enlarged Superior National Forest to include much of the border area from Rainy Lake to Grand Portage on Lake Superior. [16] Although the bill was dropped in 1924 for lack of support in Congress, its objectives survived in later proposals made by individuals and organizations who continued to work for placement of the entire region under federal control—preferably through expansion of Superior National Forest.

The road controversy continued until September 1926 when the secretary of the Department of Agriculture issued a policy statement that sought not only to resolve the road issue but also to clarify the Agriculture Department's position on wilderness recreation management. The statement announced a new program that would, "conserve the value of the Superior National Forest as a game and fish country and as a national playground offering a virile and wholesome form of recreation off the beaten paths..." [17] The policy statement did not ignore the fundamental purposes of a national forest—production and utilization of timber using scientific methods—but it did recognize, in a more formal way, the growing significance of recreational values in the management of its forest lands. [18]

A year before Agriculture Secretary William Jardine's directive establishing a roadless, primitive area within Superior National Forest, a far more serious threat to the wilderness border zone appeared in the form of a flood control and power development plan for much of the canoe country along the Minnesota-Ontario border. The scheme, advanced by E.W. Backus, president of the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company (M&O), called for damming Rainy and Namakan Lakes and for building storage dams at the outlets of a number of smaller border lakes to the east. Water levels would have risen eighty-eight feet in some places, and virtually two-thirds of what is presently included in the Quetico-Superior canoe wilderness would have been destroyed. [19]

Conservationists were stunned by the implications of the project. In spite of their earlier and relatively successful efforts at protection of this resource, they now realized that they could expect repeated threats to the pristine character of the border waterway. Also, the westerly section of this region from Crane Lake to near International Falls on Rainy Lake (now within Voyageurs National Park) was not included in Superior National Forest and was subject to future private development that might destroy its primitive qualities.

Seeking to respond to these realities, a new conservation coalition, the Quetico-Superior Council, was formed in 1927. The members of the council, meeting for the first time on January 28, came from groups centering around the American side of Rainy Lake, the Twin Cities, and officials from the Department of Agriculture who were used as resource people. Ernest Oberholtzer, from the village of Ranier on Rainy Lake, was the chief architect of the council program and served as its first president. [20] The Quetico-Superior Council quickly attracted the support of a variety of conservation groups including the Izaak Walton League and the Minnesota Conservation Association. It launched a coordinated effort to alert the public to the fragile nature of this area and to promote the adoption of a protectionist-preservationist philosophy for the entire region. Central to this plan was "achieving continuous public ownership along the international boundary from Rainy Lake east to Lake Superior." [21]

To forestall future threats to the area and to move toward the goal of public management, the Quetico-Superior Council in 1928 proposed a plan for an International Peace Memorial Forest that would be administered by policies agreed upon by the appropriate governmental agencies of the two nations. The proposal, which encompassed a much larger area (the entire Rainy Lake watershed) than the existing Superior National Forest and Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park, clearly recognized the geographical unity of the area. Although it was never formally adopted as proposed, it served as a useful mechanism for discussion, mediation, and international cooperation, and it also helped focus attention on the one remaining segment of the border lakes region on the U.S. side that was still to be brought into public ownership—the Kabetogama peninsula and the lands adjacent to Namakan, Sand Point and Crane Lakes. Credit for keeping the goal of wilderness protection alive for this international forest and lake country must go to Ernest Oberholtzer. He worked for more than twenty-five years to get his International Peace Memorial Forest protected by treaty but his goal was never fully realized. However, his vision of a protected "voyageurs waterway" along the international boundary was realized. He explained his proposal in an article published in 1929 in which he stated, "[that] park-like conditions, free from logging, flooding, draining, and all other forms of exploitation, be established and maintained on all visible shores of lakes, rivers, and islands under public control." [22]

For Oberholtzer, public control always meant the USFS. He had no problem with the USFS and its commitment to commercial forestry so long as that activity was excluded from scenic areas better suited to wilderness recreational use. And so to prevent further damming of lakes and streams and to assure protection from further damage to wooded shores, islands, waterfalls, and rapids in the border waterways, the Quetico-Superior Council, under Oberholtzer's leadership, began working with members of the Minnesota congressional delegation in the formulation of protective legislation. This legislation, sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Senator Henrik Shipstead and the U.S. House of Representatives by Walter Newton and William Nolan, was introduced in 1928, and after bitter wrangling it was passed and signed into law in 1930. The Shipstead-Newton-Nolan bill was the first major piece of regulatory legislation approved by the U.S. Congress for Minnesota's wilderness border waterway. Within three years of its passage, the Minnesota Legislature enacted legislation applying the same general principles to state-owned land within the area.

The Shipstead-Newton-Nolan legislation conserved for recreational use the natural beauty of shorelines on all federal lands, "which border upon any boundary lake or stream contiguous to this area, or any other lake or stream within this area which is now or eventually to be in general use for boat or canoe travel." [23] In order to carry out this principle, it forbade logging on all shores to a depth of 400 feet from the natural waterline and forbade further alteration of the natural water level in any lake or stream within the designated area of the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act. [24] The beautiful shorelines of Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point Lakes, now within Voyageurs National Park, were subject to the provisions of this act and represent dramatic testimony to the wisdom and forethought of the charter members of the Quetico-Superior Council.

Following passage of the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act (Shipstead Act), Oberholtzer and others on the Quetico-Superior Council intensified their efforts to bring more of the border lakes region under public control. To achieve this objective meant expanding the holdings of Superior National Forest, including acquisition of the Kabetogama Peninsula. They soon learned that this would not be easy because opposition to the Quetico-Superior program was building, especially within the state's Conservation Commission. Oberholtzer first learned of this when he met with Governor Theodore Christianson in November 1930, shortly after the governor had lost his bid for reelection. Christianson told Oberholtzer that he felt his loss was due to his having expressed himself in favor of the Quetico-Superior program and the Shipstead Act. [25]

Floyd Olson, who succeeded Christianson as governor, had little contact with advocates of the Quetico-Superior program during his first term. However, during his second term, opportunities to consolidate holdings within Superior and achieve the long-range objectives of the Shipstead Act and the Quetico-Superior program began to appear when the Roosevelt administration made available substantial funding for its conservation programs.

One objective of the New Deal conservation agenda was the purchase of cutover lands that could then be placed under the management of the USFS. Oberholtzer and an associate on the council met with Governor Olson to explain the opportunities available and seek his assistance. They told him that other states were taking advantage of the new programs, but in Minnesota his Conservation Commission was blocking efforts to enhance consolidation and expansion of the federal forest holdings in the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan areas of the state. The explanation for this blocking action was simply opposition to further expansion of the federal forest. As a matter of policy and practice, the USFS was reluctant to go ahead with such purchases in the face of opposition by state government authorities. Governor Olson, hoping to improve the position of the Quetico-Superior program, replaced several members of the Conservation Commission, and in a reversal of state policy, the commission invited the USFS to resume its consolidation program. Olson's untimely death in 1936 removed the only governor in that decade that had shown any significant support for the program. But the depletion of funds toward the end of the decade greatly reduced the opportunities for realization of the Quetico-Superior plan for expansion of federal administration along the border lakes corridor through westerly expansion of Superior National Forest.

Figure 4: Quetico-Superior Area

From a reprint of an article written by Dr. Wallace W. Atwood, noted American Geographer, and published in the Canadian Geographical Journal in July 1949. The article entitled, "A Geographer Looks at the Quetico-Superior Area," was reprinted as a pamphlet by the President's Committee on the Quetico-Superior Area. This committee promoted a plan to place the Rainy Lake watershed under the provisions of an international treaty that would guarantee protection of its natural resources from harmful exploitation. The plan was endorsed by the Canadian and American Legions as an International Peace Memorial Forest honoring veterans of both World Wars.

(click on image for a PDF version)

The state's anti-federal attitude continued into the early 1940s during the administration of Governor Harold Stassen. This time it directly affected the Kabetogama Peninsula, the future home of Voyageurs National Park. In a further display of "states rights" the legislature in its first session in the 1940s passed legislation "providing that there should be no further federal purchases of land in the state of Minnesota without the consent of the Governor." [26] Stassen didn't have to wait long to use the authority granted in this legislation. The USFS had been meeting with owners of land on the Kabetogama Peninsula and adjacent areas for some time, and had put together purchase arrangements to extend federal ownership into thousands of acres of cutover land in what the USFS called its Kabetogama Purchase Unit. When they approached the governor for his approval of the purchase arrangements he told them their proposal wasn't in the public interest and turned them down. Oberholtzer later termed this a serious defeat for the Quetico-Superior program. It wasn't long after Stassen's rejection of the USFS purchase plan that the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company took options on more than 50,000 acres of peninsula land. In a journal article in 1944, Oberholtzer wrote in prophetic fashion that the M&O thus became "the final arbiter of what is to be done in this region." [27]

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 23-Jan-2009