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Forty years after the fight

Despite wilderness protections, the Boundary Waters may be facing its biggest threats yet

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 8/6/18

REGIONAL— It’s been forty years since the controversial passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, a federal law that enacted significant new protections to 1.1 million acres of …

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Forty years after the fight

Despite wilderness protections, the Boundary Waters may be facing its biggest threats yet


REGIONAL— It’s been forty years since the controversial passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, a federal law that enacted significant new protections to 1.1 million acres of the Superior National Forest’s canoe country.

At the time, proponents of this spectacular region could take solace in the belief that the wilderness designation ensured long-term protection of the qualities that continue to make the area a popular destination today. And the good news is that the wilderness continues to enjoy broad public support and remains a sanctuary for its human visitors as well as the wildlife that call this complex ecosystem home.

Yet despite the protections in effect, the future of the wilderness is nonetheless uncertain according to a new report issued by the environmental advocacy group, the Friends of the Boundary Waters, that assesses the state of the wilderness on its 40th anniversary. It’s the first such report produced by the Friends since the 1978 law was enacted and it offers both good news and bad about the future of the area.

“As a federally designated wilderness area, the BWCAW is protected from human interference and should change only at nature’s pace,” writes Chris Knopf, executive director of the Friends, in a note included in the report. “Unfortunately, the natural rhythms of the wilderness are not immune to modern-day threats like global climate change and proposed sulfide mining operations. While nature is ever-changing, threats like these have the potential to render the BWCAW, as we now know it, unrecognizable.”

Agents of change

Perhaps the largest single threat identified in the report—climate change— has the potential for the greatest and most wide-ranging impacts. “The continued consumption of fossil fuels and the changes to climate it causes are already impacting the wilderness and have profound implications for the Boundary Waters ecosystem,” the study concludes.

It notes that visitors to the wilderness one hundred years from now will likely experience a dramatically different landscape, much different from the southern boreal forest edge that dominates much of the wilderness today. Based on the latest scientific studies, the report predicts that “Oaks and maples will eventually replace much of today’s boreal pine forests, while some areas will convert to grasslands.”

The change is likely to occur soonest on the western end of the wilderness, where oaks and red maple have already grown increasingly dominant in recent years. But even in eastern portions of the wilderness, the report predicts that the boreal forest that currently dominates the Boundary Waters will be limited to north-facing slopes or other cooler locations.

And the rapid pace of climate change in northeastern Minnesota means disappearance of the boreal forest could come sooner that most people expect. “The change in winter in the region from climate change is very dramatic,” said Knopf, in an interview for this story.

Indeed, the region has already experienced some of the most dramatic warming anywhere in the lower 48 states, with average winter temperatures increasing up to 7.5 degrees F. since 1970. Given such dramatic change already, University of Minnesota forest ecologist Lee Frelich, who has conducted extensive research in the Boundary Waters, now predicts that just one or two degrees of additional warming will be enough to “definitely tip the balance away from boreal.”

One potential driver of forest change is fire, and the report notes that the frequency and intensity of large fires in the wilderness may also be driving change. While fire is an important natural event in the boreal forest, the report notes that the changing nature of the fires is likely to drive larger changes in the forest over time.

At the same time, the increasing frequency of major blowdown events, which can greatly elevate fire risk, may be contributing to the severity of fires when they do break out.

Such changes, driven by climate change, would not only impact the forest types found in the wilderness, but also the types of wildlife, from mammals to birds, that will live there in the future.

Iconic northwoods species, like moose and Canada lynx, could disappear as a result of such dramatic changes.

The intense warming being experienced already is also expected to impact fish species in the region’s lakes and rivers, and could affect cold-water species, like ciscoes and lake trout, most quickly.

While the Friends are helping to sound the alarm on climate change, Knopf acknowledges it’s an issue far beyond the ability of a single small advocacy group to combat in a meaningful way.

That’s not the case with another potential change agent facing the wilderness: sulfide mining. While the effects on the wilderness from climate change appear to be wide-ranging and all but certain, the potential effects from the proposed opening of copper-nickel mining along the Duluth Gabbro are highly dependent on future political decisions— and that offers opportunity for groups like the Friends to carry out their mission to protect the wilderness.

The report focuses primarily on the proposed Twin Metals mine, which could encompass the eventual mining of several known deposits that extend along the South Kawishiwi River, one that directly abuts the wilderness. All of the deposits lie within the South Kawishiwi River watershed, which drains into the BWCAW.

“Any groundwater pollution from the Twin Metals mine would enter Birch Lake, flow through the White Iron Chain of Lakes to Fall Lake and enter the BWCAW as part of the Rainy River watershed. These waters — cherished for fishing, swimming, and providing habitat for wildlife — flow past BWCAW campsites and entry points, resorts and cabins,” notes the report.

Mining is not currently allowed within the wilderness boundaries, except during national emergencies, and the 1978 law also enacted Mining Protection Areas in areas bordering the wilderness to prevent contamination of rivers and lakes that flow into the Boundary Waters. Those protected areas are found along the Echo Trail, the Fernberg Road, and the Gunflint Trail, but a portion of the southwestern side of the wilderness was left with little protection due to the existence of two previously-issued mineral leases that were still in effect.

The Obama administration had denied renewal of those leases just before leaving office, but the Trump administration renewed them in May, breathing new life into the Twin Metals proposal.

The Friends have joined several other environmental groups in filing suit against that decision. That case is still in the early stages and may not be decided, possibly, for years.

Water quality remains exceptional

One of the brightest spots in the report is the group’s assessment of water quality in the wilderness. “The waters of the BWCAW are some of the cleanest in the nation. Every lake, stream and wetland in the wilderness is designated by the State of Minnesota as an outstanding resource water,” notes the report, and most have demonstrated long-term stability in terms of water clarity and nutrient levels.

But the report notes that sulfide mining poses a significant threat to one of the wilderness’s largest watersheds and that there’s evidence that climate change is already having an impact as well. Warmer water temperatures can reduce oxygen levels, which support aquatic life, and can influence how nutrients move through a lake system. Warmer water also generally boosts the growth of organic matter, increasing the rate of eutrophication. Warming temperatures can also alter the resilience of native aquatic species and provide an opening for establishment and domination by invasives.

While Boundary Waters lakes are exceptionally clean, almost all of them have some kind of fish consumption advisory due to levels of mercury above the recommended level. The soft water and shallow, acidic soils of the Boundary Waters have very little buffering capacity, so they are unable to bind up the very small amounts of mercury that fall on lake surfaces in rain and snow. Most of that mercury is emitted into the atmosphere by coal-burning power plants. While the level of mercury in Boundary Waters lakes is incredibly low, it’s a contaminant that accumulates as you move up the food chain, which is why state regulators urge people to limit their consumption of older, top predator fish, which typically contain the highest levels of mercury in their tissue.

Maintaining a


The Boundary Waters isn’t the only popular recreational playground to come face-to-face with the effects of advanced technology and the changing nature of recreation, particularly for younger generations.

Knopf describes the shift as “potentially existential,” both for his organization and future protection of the wilderness. Just as a law passed 40 years ago this fall dramatically changed the legal landscape surrounding human activities in the Boundary Waters, a future Congress could sweep those same protections away— unless there’s a constituency to fight back.

“We need people to continue to advocate for the wilderness,” said Knopf, who notes that the average age of a visitor to the Boundary Waters has increased dramatically in recent decades.

“In 1969, the average age of a visitor was 26,” he said. “By 2007, it was 45.”

That’s one reason that the Friends focuses significant energy on encouraging youth visitation to the wilderness, teaming up to support organizations like the YMCA’s Camp Menogyn, which leads youth groups into the wilderness.

The organization recently applied for an LCCMR grant to conduct outreach through public schools to underserved populations. That grant, if fully funded, could give as many as 250 young people the opportunity to visit the Boundary Waters. “We’re trying to make more diverse communities aware of the Boundary Waters,” said Knopf. “There should be no boundaries for the Boundary Waters.”

Go to to find a link to the full report.


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