Eighty Years in the Making
A Legislative History of Voyageurs National Park
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Voyageurs National Park is situated at the western end of a federal recreational corridor stretching from Lake Superior to International Falls. This region of spectacular natural beauty, with its many lakes, streams, peninsulas, and islands, was the French voyageurs preferred route to the North American interior during the fur trading days of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The region, therefore, has natural and cultural attributes that prompted late nineteenth and early twentieth century American and Canadian citizens to look for ways to shield this valuable heritage from the often destructive consequences of traditional settlement and development.

Although the entire corridor was generally viewed as a natural unit deserving of protective measures, it was the area from Crane Lake eastward to Lake Superior that first came under the protective mantle of public control. This segment of the border lakes region was included within the boundaries of Superior National Forest in 1909, and within a decade, was the subject of forest administrators' first analysis of its recreational value. From that date forward, repeated efforts have been made through internal U.S. Forest Service management decisions, presidential orders, and congressional legislation to define and refine the management policies that govern what is now called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). [1]

Meanwhile, much of the area from Crane Lake westward to International Falls passed into private hands, and its mineral and timber resources were thoroughly integrated into the industrial resource economy of the region and the nation. Nevertheless, some conservationists continued to look to the time when this westerly segment of the border lakes region would come under a federal management policy similar to that of the BWCAW. It is essential to an understanding of the efforts to secure legislation for Voyageurs National Park to see this linkage with the BWCAW and the entire corridor zone.

Figure 1: Regional Location, Voyageurs National Park

Figure 2: Vicinity location, Voyageurs National Park

Many, perhaps even most of the advocates for Voyageurs National Park weren't aware of the long-sought quest for continuous public control of the maze of lakes, islands, and streams along the Minnesota-Ontario border. They were motivated more by the opportunity to help secure a national park for Minnesota—and to bring this beautiful area into the "system" of national parks, thereby saving it from exploitation. Most, no doubt, shared the philosophy expressed by Charles Lindbergh in remarks made at the 1973 dedication of his boyhood home at Little Falls, Minnesota. "In establishing parks and nature reserves, man reaches beyond the material values of science and technology. That is why I say that parks symbolize the greatest advance our civilization has yet made." [2] They would have agreed as well with novelist-historian Wallace Stegner, [3] who wrote that the national park was "the best idea we ever had." But they soon found that "park-making" is never easy, as illustrated by the decades-long battles for parks like Teton National Park, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and many others. Voyageurs was certainly no exception.

Voyageurs was wrapped in controversy from the beginning. Creating a national park where land ownership had evolved into a complex mix of private and public holdings made land acquisition policy a constant issue throughout the campaign for the park. Local residents had become accustomed to essentially unrestricted recreational use of private and public lands in the proposed park area. They were stunned at the prospect of losing these advantages in their "backyard"—an area that had suddenly been declared to have "national significance." Both sides had to endure periods of bureaucratic inertia and wrangling and interminable, unexplained delays with reports, public hearings, and responses to questions germane to the controversy. And park supporters in particular were often frustrated with the cautious demeanor of the congressman who was carrying the park legislation in the House of Representatives.

This study identifies and presents the central issues involved in the lengthy debate over Voyageurs National Park in a chronological fashion. The time frame is 1962 to 1975 when the president signed the authorizing legislation. Archival documents from the Minnesota Historical Society, Voyageurs National Park, the Midwest Regional Office of the National Park Service in Omaha, the Legislative and Congressional Office of the Department of the Interior in Washington, records of the Superior National Forest in Duluth, newspaper files of the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, personal interviews, and the personal files of the author were used in preparing this document.

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Last Updated: 23-Jan-2009