Conference on BWCA launches lobbying effort

by Lynne Kozarek

Days after mediation efforts over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area broke down, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group held a conference to discuss motorized vehicle access to the wilderness area and the fate of national parks.
Saturday’s conference and rally at Macalester College came at a time when MPIRG is preparing to depart for Washington D.C. to lobby members of Congress to keep the Boundary Waters free of motorized access.
The wilderness activist conference was organized around the theme of reminding college activists to remember “why they do what they do for the environment.”
“We’re the next generation of activists,” said Mike Rentz, MPIRG’s Macalester’s campus organizer. “We’re here now and it’s time for us to take charge.”
MPIRG, the group sponsoring the event, is a nonprofit, non-partisan advocacy group that receives student service fees and works to pass a broad range of legislation benefiting students.
About 145 students from colleges such as the University, St. Cloud State University and the University of Wisconsin registered for the conference and attended workshops run by members of several different environmental groups.
Adam Sokolski, coordinator of the Minnesota Wilderness and Parks Coalition, held a workshop updating the activists on the current struggle over use of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
“We need these areas to be protected for our future,” Sokolski said. “We are allowed to keep one-fifteenth of Minnesota’s lakes non-motorized and that’s the right thing to do.”
Federal mediation over the future of motorized access to the BWCA broke down last week, because the two sides have been unable to decide the details of any solution. Sokolski said activists for and against motorized use of the lakes are at an impasse.
Advocates for motorized access want several truck portages and snowmobile and motorized boat access to the Boundary Waters. In 1995, Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn and Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn introduced a bill before Congress that would increase motorized access to the Boundary Waters.
The legislation did not pass, but Sokolski said he believes it will be introduced again soon.
The Minnesota Wilderness and Parks Coalition has spent almost a year in mediation with pro-motor advocates in an attempt to resolve the issue on a small scale.
“In the 1940s and ’50s, peoples’ houses were bombed over this issue,” Sokolski said, “now we’re able to have a mediation session and to go out to dinner together afterwards. That is progress.”
University national parks researcher, Jerrilyn Thompson, spoke at the conference about the importance of visitor experience and resource protection at national parks.
“Crowding and congestion at our national parks are emerging issues,” Thompson said. “We are trying to determine what kind and what amount of use is acceptable.”
Thompson has worked for the University for seven years in the Cooperative Park Studies Unit in the College of Natural Resources on issues that affect national parks.
A small rally capped off the day-long conference with a send-off for eight of the 30 MPIRG members going to Washington D.C. on Wednesday to lobby Congress. All eight spoke to the crowd.
“It’s hard to know what was there before and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a piece of that,” said Amy Vavak, a junior at St. Olaf. “It is a little piece of heaven.”