OUR HISTORY

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Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW) was founded in 1996 to continue a vital local tradition:

Working to protect our wild places against ever increasing public and commercial pressures so that the area’s wild character will remain intact for future generations. Founding members defined our role in the NMW Stewardship Guide

 

Today, NMW is a locally-based national wilderness and public lands advocacy group still grounded in our original roots and beliefs. We bring together diverse communities around the region, throughout Minnesota, and across the country as a unified force to protect the Boundary Waters and other wild places. Today NMW is the largest conservation organization in Minnesota that focuses on protecting and preserving the Boundary Waters and greater Quetico-Superior region.

 

NMW has thousands of members and supporters. Join Us!

In the wake of the 1964 Wilderness Act which established the National Wilderness Preservation System and designated the 1-million-acre Boundary Waters as a National Wilderness Area, anti-wilderness activists mounted a movement seeking rollbacks in wilderness protection of the Boundary Waters.  In 1975, they rallied around a U.S. House bill (HR 10247) introduced by freshmen Iron Range U.S. Representative Jim Oberstar. The bill was opposed by the conservation community, which formed an umbrella coalition called, Friends of the Boundary Waters in 1976.  The Friends of the Boundary Waters was led by several conservation groups such as the Sierra Club. In response, anti-wilderness activists formed the Boundary Waters Conservation Alliance in 1977 to support the Oberstar bill and to fight a subsequent Boundary Waters Wilderness bill (HR 9095) introduced by U.S. Representative Don Fraser in September of 1977.   Ultimately, on October 21, 1978, Congress passed the Burton Vento Bill (HR 12250), a revision of the Fraser bill, into law as PL 95-495, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Act. PL 95-494 eliminated incompatible uses in the Boundary Waters by banning logging, reducing motorboat use over time to approximately 22% of the water surface area and limiting motorboat horsepower, expanding the Wilderness by about 90,000 acres, banning mining, and establishing a 220,000 acre mining buffer area along “portals”, roads that allowed access to entry points around the Boundary Waters. Seeking to undo parts of the 1978 Boundary Waters Act, in 1989 wilderness opponents in the Iron Range organized as Conservations with Common Sense.  CWCS called for increased motorized use of the Boundary Waters (“multiple-use”) with support from “Wise Use” activists of the Blue Ribbon Coalition seeking privatization of public lands.  

 

By 1995, two Minnesota Congressman, U.S. Rep. Oberstar and U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, fostered bills that would increase the Boundary Waters lake area that is open to motors by nearly 50%, return trucks to three formerly motorized portages, and shift management authority from the U.S. Forest Service to a “local management council” consisting largely of state & county officials.  Our wilderness champion U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento led the opposition with a bill that would maintain the Boundary Water’s protected status.

 

Congressional field hearings on the bills are held in International Falls that summer (August 18) and in the Twin Cities that fall (October 18).  Becky Rom testified in the Twin Cities. Grand Marais outfitter Bill Hansen and Ely outfitter Paul Schurke testified at the International Falls hearings. Wilderness opponents portrayed the battle as “us against them”; northeastern Minnesota locals seeking increased motor use versus Twin Cities ‘yuppies’ supporting wilderness playgrounds for the rich.  (NB: Recent public opinion polls find as much support for wilderness (70%) among northeastern Minnesotans as among Twin City residents). Over the winter of 1995-96, wilderness enthusiasts in northeastern Minnesota discussed organizing local Boundary Waters wilderness support groups.

 

In the spring of 1996, Grand Marais activists organized as Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW) under Bill Hansen’s leadership.  In the summer, an Ely chapter was organized by Paul Schurke and others.  The first Ely meeting (June 26) drew 73 people to the Ely Presbyterian Church. Ely outfitter Bill Rom called for NMW to ensure that the Boundary Waters wilderness status, remain undiminished and that the group promote freedom of speech to forestall the violence Ely witnessed in the mid-70s by opponents of the 1978 Boundary Waters bill.  NMW’s stationary masthead read: “The democratic health of a community is measured by the diversity of opinion expressed within it. By that measure, Ely is ailing.  Help heal our town. Speak out.” Ely, world famous as the “Canoe Country Capitol,” finally had a voice for wilderness.

 

By mid-1996, NMW  had over 1,000 members in six chapters: Ely, Grand Marais, Two Harbors, Finland, Cook and International Falls (6 total) and got off to a roaring  start. In early July, NMW members met in Ely with U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone who proposed federal mediation as an alternative to the competing bills.  In July, NMW sent members to Washington, D.C. to attend a Senate hearing on the competing bills. In August, NMW applied for a seat on Wellstone’s mediation panel (NWM member Brent Spink later served in that capacity.)  NMW joined a 30-member coalition of environmental groups under leadership of Minnesota Wilderness and Park Coalition seeking to preserve protections for both the BWCAW and Voyageur National Park (formed in 1975, and also under attack).  On November 2, NMW hosted its first annual gathering which, thanks to member Becky Rom, featured an extraordinary keynote speaker: U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day and counsel to The Wilderness Society (for which Becky had become a board member).  The weekend “Celebrate Wilderness Rally” at Camp Du Nord drew 250 people for talks and workshops and a folk dance by Bill Hansen’s band.  That fall, NMW incorporated as a non-profit, tax-exempt entity, with 1400 members. The first NMW board were Ely area residents, Dr. Bob Somer, Nick Caine, Alex Keats, Laurie Larson, Debbi Passi, Paul Schurke, Tom Speros, Daryl Veatch and Lisa Wittenberg.

 

During the national debate over these new and once again opposing bills, NMW’s members testified in Congress, including at a U.S. House hearing, and joined with national conservation groups in a long portage of canoes down the National Mall to promote the threat to the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park. Congress held a field hearing in the Ely-Tower area by visiting the Lake Vermilion - Trout Lake portage and holding a public meeting. At the Trout Lake portage, anti-wilderness activist Mike Forsman arrived with a very large fishing boat with two huge outboard motors attached to the stern, in an attempt to demonstrate that humans could not push boats across the portage without being towed by motorized trucks. With U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth and U.S. Sen. Rod Grams observing, U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento stood at the back of the boat now set on portage wheels and, along with others, pushed that boat across the portage. He would have pushed an elephant across the portage if that was what was needed. 

 

In 1997, efforts by NMW and the coalition were successful in thwarting any further congressional hearings or action on the Oberstar/Grams bill and the federal mediation efforts fizzled out. U.S. Rep. Vento and U.S. Rep. Oberstar agreed to a minor face-saving (for both sides) measure in the annual transportation bill, called ISTEA, that removed motors from two lakes (Canoe and Alder) and re-opened two truck portages (Prairie and Trout Lake). But for all practical purposes, the status quo of wilderness protection for the Boundary Waters and national park protections for Voyageurs National Park were preserved as hoped. That fall NMW held its second annual rally featuring wilderness author Paul Gruchow.  The NMW Board was then comprised of  Ely and Grand Marais area residents, Pam Leschak, Bill Hansen, Darrel Knuffke, Laurie Larson, John Oberholtzer, Nancy Powers, Marc Smith, Brent Spink, Tim Velner and Lisa Wittenberg-Porthan.

 

Though quieter, the years that follow include many highlights (and a very sad tragedy: our wilderness champion Wellstone died in a 2002 plane crash). In 2000, NMW took on a new threat, “The Potential Impacts of Hardrock Mining Near the BWCAW”.  In 2005 NMW opposed a U.S. Forest Service proposal for a snowmobile trail near the Boundary Water’s South Fowl Lake. In 2010, under the leadership of Brad Sagen (and a budget of $7,000), NMW ramped up its focus on a mining threat and called for a prohibition on sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the BWCAW.  In 2011, NMW celebrated its 15th year with an annual meeting at the Old Finn Hall, a symbolic halfway point between NMW’s Grand Marais & Ely area roots. Bill Hansen entertained with stories of NMW’s conception at hot tub gatherings in Grand Maris and Camp Widjiwagan.  NMW’s 2012 annual meeting featured a talk by Chuck Wick, executive director of the Listening Point Foundation, on “Sigurd Olson as Wilderness Advocate.”  NMW joined a lawsuit against AT&T plans for 450’ cell tower along the Fernberg that would be visible for miles within the Boundary Waters.  Also in 2012, Twin Metals formally announced its plan for sulfide-ore copper mine near Spruce Road.  NMW denounced that plan and tackled other Boundary Waters threats: climate change, non-native invasive and endangered species. 2012 NMW board members included Becky Rom, Jeff Evans, Ellen Hawkins, Steve Snyder, Deb Kleese, Brad Sagen, and Paul Schurke with LynnAnne Vesper as NMW administrator.

 

In August 2012, NMW had its first meetings with conservation groups in Minnesota, urging the formation of a national movement to protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining. It has its first meetings with members of Congress in Washington, DC in November 2012. NMW (Brad Sagen, Reid Carron, and Becky Rom) authored and submitted an application to American Rivers, requesting that the Kawishiwi River and the Boundary Waters be classified as an Endangered River due to the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining. In April 2013, American Rivers announces its 2013 list of Endangered Rivers, and includes the Kawishiwi River, a headwaters tributary flowing through the  Boundary Waters.

 

On May, 2013, NMW’s “Sustainable Ely” advocacy and outreach center opened on Ely’s main street, founded by Becky Rom & Reid Carron, Steve & Nancy Piragis, Jane & Steve Koschak, Susan & Paul Schurke, and Nan and Gerry Snyder. 

 

In August 2013, NMW met with advocates, businesses, conservation groups, labor, and members of the Minnesota Legislature to gather input on establishing a national coalition. By September 2013, the national coalition, called the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, was formed. It is led and funded by NMW. 

 

In December 2013, a NMW delegation of Becky Rom, and Reid Carron and Ely-area business owners Steve Piragis, Jane Koschak, and Steve Koschak traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with the U.S. Forest Chief’s office, the Agriculture Under Secretary, the BLM Director’s office, U.S. Senator Franken, U.S. Representatives McCollum, Walz, and Nolan, and staff for U.S. Representatives Kline, Peterson, Paulsen, Ellison and for U.S. Senator Klobuchar. In February 2014, another NMW delegation campaigned in Washington, D.C. against sulfide-ore copper mining near the BWCAW (Becky Rom, Reid Carron, Dave Freeman, Paul Schurke, Olivia Ridge, and Rachel Garwin). In December 2014, a large NMW delegation of local wilderness advocates, including owners of wilderness-based businesses, scientists, hunting and fishing enthusiasts, and silent sport enthusiasts, traveled to Washington, D.C. to greet Dave and Amy Freeman when they finished their 101 day Paddle to DC and to meet with U.S. Sen. Franken, U.S. Senator Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. McCollum, U.S. Rep. Walz, and various federal agency heads. NMW delegations continued to travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with Members of Congress and agency staff multiple times each year, and in most years, every month, through March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic halted trade. Advocacy then shifted to zoom meetings. By the end of 2020, more than 400 conservation and hunting & fishing groups and businesses belong to the national coalition known as the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, and are united around the goal of permanent protection of the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, and Quetico Park from the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. 


In recent years, NMW has continued multi-faceted litigation efforts to challenge attempts to permit sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, with three pending federal lawsuits and one state pending lawsuit. NMW been engaged with coalition partners to push back on key rollbacks of national environmental law and policy that affect wilderness and public lands. We have built one of the most effective public lands coalitions in the nation with our Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. Our affiliate organization, Boundary Waters Action Fund, has engaged in the election of “Boundary Waters Champions” at both the Federal and State levels of government; these Champions have pledged to support permanent protection of the Boundary Waters from copper mining.  Now, as NMW approaches its 25th year, we will double our efforts toward permanent protection of Boundary Waters watershed from sulfide-ore copper mining. We will persevere in our efforts to protect the values of wilderness and public lands, as we stand on the shoulders of the great environmental advocates and wilderness warriors that came before us.

Local Voices for Wilderness:
A Quarter Century of Advocacy by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness

Paul Wellstone

Bruce Vento

Gaylord Nelson