Ye Old Menogyn Guides
Battle to Save the Wilderness by Armond Paulson

The following is an important story in Menogyn’s rich history. It’s told here so that future generations will understand the legacy left to them by the people and events of the 1960’s and 70’s when the battle raged to protect and preserve the wilderness of Northern Minnesota. The Influence of the Early Days The battle to save wilderness areas in America has a long history. It is important to understand that the attitudes inherent in the early days of the lumber and iron ore industries were of great influence in the evolution of the history of the wilderness of Northern Minnesota. It was a dynamic time in a nation just recovering from the Civil War and expanding rapidly west. Industries that focused on gaining raw materials grew rapidly. The preservation of the wilderness first became a major political issue during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency in the early 1900’s when he, along with his Secretary of the Interior, Gifford Pinchot, created the national park system by convincing Congress to designate millions of acres in the United States for a national park system.

 Many vested interests were unhappy, but his vision and courage left a priceless legacy to future generations. Earlier, his prophetic words spoken in the Dakota Territories in 1886, were one of the first public calls for the stewardship of the earth. “You already know your rights and privileges so well. I want to say a few words to you about your duties. Much has been given to us….and we must take heed to use aright the gifts entrusted to our care. It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it. I do not undervalue for a moment our material prosperity…..But we must keep steadfastly in mind that no people were ever benefited by riches if their prosperity corrupted their virtue.”

At this time most people did not resonate with these insightful and prophetic words, thus we would spend the next 100 years abusing our nation’s land for profit. President Theodore Roosevelt is an American hero because he never backed down from his ethics and principles regarding the preservation and protection of the wilderness and wild places. He was aware of their place and importance to the emotional, ethical and spiritual health of future generations. His value system, courage, determination and resolve drove his historic vision forward. He was not enamored nor detoured by the power and entitlements of wealthy business corporations. He single handedly created our National Park System.

There is the wonderful and true story of President Roosevelt and Pinchot sequestered in the White House Oval Office pouring over maps of the United States and identifying areas to be designated for the National Park System. Roosevelt, on his hands and knees and looking at maps spread across the floor, called out latitude and longitude numbers for Pinchot to record. Once completed, these designations were sent to Congress. The rest is history.

Lumbering, mining, and water interests throughout the United States became increasingly aggressive in the last half of the 1800’s with their agenda to buy land and its resources. Huge amounts of acreage were claimed and purchased by lumber companies following the Civil War (1865 and after). Early timber companies like Weyerhaeuser and Alger Smith were actively engaged in buying land and timber rights in Minnesota and throughout the country. The rationale was that the United States was “building a nation” thus everything was permitted in the rush to secure land for financial gain. Money and power prevailed. Greed was rampant because there were fortunes to be made. Forests were “clear cut” with no slash cleanup or replanting. It was quick and efficient and time was money.

In 1925, in Minnesota, plans were made by E. W. Backus, who owned the largest paper mill in the country in International Falls, to dam up the lakes on the Minnesota-Canadian border from Rainy Lake to the eastern most point of the Arrowhead Country, for hydro-electrical power. This would have forever changed 14,500 acres of wilderness along the border. Thankfully that was stopped by the single handed efforts of a tenacious, early wilderness preservationist, Ernest Oberholzer. It took him years of litigation to stop it and at great expense. The discovery of iron ore in the Vermillion Range in 1884 began the intensive search for minerals of all kinds in Northern Minnesota. And in 1884 the first shipment of iron ore, secured from the underground mine shafts in the Vermillion Range, left by rail for Two Harbors and to be shipped over the Great Lakes to the eastern steel mills. Just a few years later in 1890, iron was discovered in the Mesabi Range that created an iron ore industry of mammoth proportions. It was the “mother load” for the country and had the largest deposit of iron ore in the world. It built the US steel industry.

The U.S. Steel Company was born in 1901 because of the Mesabi Range. Others companies followed. Only this time the mines were open pit because the lode of iron ore was so rich and close to the surface. In the Mesabi Range, over a dozen new mining towns quickly sprang up. (i.e. Hibbing, Virginia City, Mountain Iron, Eveleth, Keewautin etc.) The largest open pit mine in the world was located in Hibbing. It was three miles long, two miles wide and 535 feet deep. The Iron Range provided most of the iron ore needed for the Second World War effort (1941 – 1945). Understandably the war effort needed steel. Over three billion tons of ore was taken out of the mines of the Iron Range in only 60 years. That precipitated exploration for ore deposits all along the border.

Poor immigrants from all over Europe flocked to Northern Minnesota to work in the mines. These families were desperate for a new opportunity in America. And so they came with great hope for a better life. It’s estimated that over 20 different languages were spoken in these Iron Range mining towns. A better life was not to be. Once there, there was no way out. How these poor immigrants and their families were dehumanized and abused will always be a black mark on the history of Minnesota, the nation and the mining industry. Mining interests were strong, powerful and “connected” with both national and Minnesota politics. Minnesota was a bonanza of timber and mineral resources ready to be plucked and it was felt that these resources were endless.

The words written by Jim Madison Goodhue in 1852, in the first newspaper in Minnesota, are indicative, “The centuries will never exhaust the pineries above us.” And the belief in “Manifest Destiny” prevailed thus nothing could stand in the way of development and economic gain. It was a duty to feed economic growth by cutting the forests and excavating the mineral deposits. In the words of early pioneer leader Horace Greely in 1865: “This region will breathe freer when its last pine is cut, run, sawed, rafted and sold.” There were no checks and balances and the voices for conservation and wilderness preservation were summarily dismissed and disregarded. Environmentalists had no organized power base, thus they were voices “crying in the wilderness.” Pun intended.

The Ojibwa Native American tribes, whose ancestral lands had been the forests of northern Minnesota, were neutered. By 1855 they had been moved, by en large, to reservations; thus they no longer had any rights to their ancestral lands and were no longer a “deterrent” to this “progress.” Their lands could now be claimed and purchased at bargain prices. Powerful vested interests controlled the political processes. There was so much wealth to be gained. The northern forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin provided lumber for the building needs of a rapidly expanding nation from the 1860’s through the 1930’s. These virgin pine forests were lumbered heavily by “clear cutting” all of the forests. Nothing remained other than stumps and slash. Replanting was unheard of. Minnesota was cutting more wood in 1900 than any other state in the union! And at this time, it was the job of the Forest Service to assist the lumber companies!

Unbelievably, this incestuous marriage would continue well into the 1980’s. The timber industry was protected by the Forest Service for over 100 years! They had it their way for over a century and thus it became a way of life!! Pine forests had existed almost as far south as Anoka, but very few stands of virgin pine survived the onslaught. The ring of the ax and the song of the saw echoed for over 70 years until the 1.1 million acres of pristine white and red pine forests were finally depleted by the 1930’s. Many of these magnificent trees were four feet across at the base. Some stands of virgin pines remained because they were in locations that were hard to reach. When driving the North Shore Drive from Duluth to the Canadian border, I often reflected on the fact that the entire north shore had once been a virgin pine forest down to the shores of Lake Superior. They had all been cut down in the early days of the timber industry in Minnesota (1860 -1900) As with the mining industry, the limitless source of poor immigrants provided the cheap labor force needed to move the wood to market.

At the height of timber cutting, over 40,000 men worked as lumberjacks in the north woods of Minnesota! There were lumber camps throughout the Arrowhead Country wilderness including the Gunflint and Sawbill Trail areas. I encountered a few while on canoe trips. (Davis Lake etc.)They were fascinating and mysterious. This virtual slave labor work force cut down the trees in winter and then when the ice went out, guided huge flotillas of logs down the main rivers to saw mills. The Pine, Rum, Mississippi, St. Croix, St. Louis, Crow Wing, Little Fork and many other rivers were glutted with logs en route to the saw mills of Grand Rapids, International Falls, St. Anthony (Minneapolis), Stillwater, La Crosse and many other cities and towns. Huge rafts of logs of more than 6,000,000 board feet of wood each were “boomed” and floated from Duluth to the Ashland Wisconsin saw mills on the southwest shore of Lake Superior. Railroad tracks were built in the wilderness to transport logs where there were no rivers. Huge rafts of logs were also “boomed” and floated from Grand Marais to Duluth. Thus began the romantic legends of Paul Bunyan, lumber jacks, lumber camps, log jams, axmanship and the shouts of “timber”.

My grandfather, as an immigrant from Norway, worked in lumber camps for two winters in 1904 and 1905 near Deer River Minnesota. I heard his stories. It was a hard life for little money. This was big business protected by politicians eager for the financial support of the wealthy timber and iron ore barons. Not everyone benefited from this financial bonanza. The “trickle down theory” was in full force. The immigrant work force gained little of this money. And there was a great fear of not having work. This “fear factor” would later greatly influence the battle to preserve the wilderness in the 1960’s and 70’s. All of this created an unfettered attitude of power and control. This attitude of complete entitlement permeated the stance that the wilderness existed only to be used and exploited for economic gain. The “economic ethic” ruled. The “aesthetic ethic” of conservation and preservation was described as “pure foolishness” promoted by “tree huggers.”

In this climate of money and greed, there was absolutely no comprehension of the interdependence of the ecosystems of the forests. Ecosystems were unheard of and thus it was incomprehensible to believe that when forests were cut down, other living things in the forest would change dramatically (tree species, plants, animals, birds, water, soil). This includes human beings who are connected, affected and dependent on the health of the ecosystem around them. Future generations were not even on the radar screen of consideration for over 100 years. How could you fight all this power and wealth? Would there be anything left? This attitude of entitlement, which continued well into the 1970’s, drove an intentional and well organized effort to block, discount and even destroy any efforts of conservation and preservation of Minnesota’s wilderness forests. Money would be lost and that could not be allowed to happen.

The Shipstead-Newton-Nelson Act was passed in 1930 by Congress. It sought to legislate protection for the wilderness areas. Logging, roads, mining were forbidden by law; however all the virgin pine forests of Minnesota had already been cut down. What remained was wood for pulp. Lumbering interests paid little attention to this legislation. Our country was in the painful economic throes of the “Great Depression” and serious “Dust Bowl” droughts across the plains of the Middle West. The Act was not enforced but served as a base for deliberations in later years. The first major money that developed Duluth was lumber money. It fed the local economy with jobs and services to lumber related wood industries. Wealthy lumber families built many of the major public buildings of the city. These granite structures exist to this day. In the early 1940’s, as the white and red pine lumber industry of northeastern Minnesota closed down, Duluth morphed into a mining town by becoming the main shipping port for iron ore en route by rail from the Mesabi Range to Duluth and then on to the steel mills of Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania by ore boat on the Great Lakes.

This economic base changed again in the 70’s out of necessity when the Mesabi Range was finally depleted of its rich iron ore. The mines barely remained open by converting to Taconite. Fear and economic depression were rampant all across the Iron Range. Duluth was depressed economically for over thirty years until tourism and urban redevelopment in the late 70’s and early 80’s saved the economy of the area as well as that of the entire Arrowhead region of northeastern Minnesota. The development of the Taconite industry in the 50’s and 60’s replaced the Mesabi Range iron.

The Reserve Mining Corporation established a new mining town, Silver Bay, on the North Shore of Lake Superior. It was built almost overnight to house thousands of persons working in the Taconite plant established there. The state of Minnesota gave Reserve Mining many tax and other concessions to establish this plant in order to energize the depressed economy of northeastern Minnesota. And with the industry in place and in control, the arrogant and cavalier abuses to the environment began again. The plant ignored regulations. It dumped 67,000 tons of taconite tailings into Lake Superior daily! After long legal battles and political “hard ball,” the plant was closed by Judge Miles Lord, after taconite tailings appeared in the water supply of Duluth 50 miles down the shore. He was tough minded and incensed at the cavalier attitude of Reserve Mining towards the environment. To continue operations, the industry had to dump their tailings inland. After years of political power plays, maneuverings threats and lawsuits, Reserve Mining finally complied and thus survived. All taconite tailings were dumped inland at a site called Milepost 7. There was a complete disregard for the earth and for human beings by corporate business interests.

Greed knows no bounds. Sigurd Olson, the great wilderness apologist, philosopher, explorer/canoeist and author, chronicled the history of the battle to save this wilderness because he fought every battle for over 70 years until his death. He was joined in these early days by other pioneer environmentalist visionaries such as Ernest Oberholzer, Bob Marshall, Frank Hubechek, Bill Magee and Charles Kelly. This man of vision, principles, values, kindness, perception, intelligence, knowledge and deep baritone voice began his efforts in the 1920’s and encouraged the creation of many environmental organizations. He supported their cooperative working relationships because he knew that collaboration was crucial to combating the power of large business interests who would seek to “divide and conquer.” These business interests had been successful for many years with this strategy. However, these environmental organizations finally began cooperative and aggressive efforts to save the wilderness and wild areas: the Wilderness Society, Izzak Walton League, Sierra Club etc. began to collaborate.

It was in the 1960’s that they finally became a strong force by creating and working together in an organization called “Conservation Affiliates.” In Minnesota this organization’s primary success, fed by previous decades of concerted effort, was the establishment of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in the 70’s. It essentially protected, for all time, the wilderness area we now enjoy. It did not come easily and without great cost to people and organizations. It’s still at risk. Vested interests, with power and money, do not give up easily. But great ideas and movements do not succeed without effort and sacrifice. It was a battle that lasted for decades and continues to this day. This is the story of that battle.

Also See Arm Paulson's Story: "The Fight to Establish the BWCAW & Menogyn's Involvement"

Paulson Stories (Click)