Federal mediators to help settle wilderness feud

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Federal mediators are optimistic they can settle one of the state’s hottest disputes over the future of two popular wilderness areas.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is trying to find common ground between those who favor motorized vehicles in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park and those who don’t.
Scot Beckenbaugh, director of mediation services for the Upper Midwest region, said Wednesday he’s disappointed the largest northern Minnesota group involved in the debate — the 3,000-member Conservationists With Common Sense — is refusing to participate in the process.
“We hope, as we explain what the process is about, they will rethink their decision,” he said. If the group cannot be brought into the talks, Beckenbaugh said, “we would try to craft a solution with their interests in mind.”
Supporters of easing motorized vehicle restrictions in the northeastern Minnesota wilderness argue their proposals would leave most of the area undisturbed.
Environmentalists and others who back strict restrictions fear easing the rules will harm a valuable natural resource and open the door for future disturbances. The long-running conflict has been played out in speeches, rallies, public hearings and in the courts. A 1993 federal ruling prohibits the use of trucks in three Boundary Waters portages.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has no regulatory or enforcement authority, but a three-member team from the independent government agency will try to bring the parties together during a series of public negotiating sessions expected to begin in July. The team is holding meetings around the state now to explain the process and encourage interested people to get involved.
Interest already is running high. Sixty-two individuals and groups have contacted the service, the mediators said.
“We’re confident we can design a process that will help the parties arrive at a solution in which all sides win,” Beckenbaugh said, citing other land and environmental conflicts resolved by the mediation service.
While federal mediators — who got involved at the request of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. — try to find a consensus among the parties, several other lawmakers are looking to Congress to resolve the dispute. Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., and Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., have introduced legislation that would expand areas open to motorized travel. Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., is proposing more restrictions. The issue has become part of the political rhetoric of this year’s congressional elections.
Mediators say their process isn’t political.
“It would be unusual to have politicians participate,” Beckenbaugh said. “This is designed to propose solutions for the politicians, not by them.”
He said politicians would be hard-pressed to ignore any recommendations that carried broad-based agreement.
Beckenbaugh said there is no way of knowing how long the process will take. He said the mediation service’s role is to create a “safe, non-threatening environment for the parties to reach a solution.”