by Jeff Forester
September 16, 2002, was a perfect autumn day in the Boundary Waters: the sky clear, relative humidity about 50 percent, winds light at less than ten miles per hour. Quicksilver dewdrops clung to amber leaves and drying grass. Nearly all of the cabin folk had closed up and gone home; the resorts were mostly vacant; shutters covered the windows.
Skeletal docks hung tilted out of the water like singular lift bridges, raised
to prevent them from being swept away by the ice that would soon fill the lakes.
Overnight frost had knocked down most of the buzzing and biting insects, but temperatures
promised to reach seventy-five by late afternoon, perfect for autumn picnics,
for long walks among the changing leaves, for watching migrating birds, for late
At Magnetic Lake, where the Gunflint Trail ends, about fifty outboards dotted
the calm water. The boats were filled not with fishermen, however, but with U.S.
Forest Service hotshots in flame-retardant Day-Glo–yellow Nomex shirts.
The Lunds were loaded to the gunwales with wilderness firefighting tools—pumps,
hoses, shovels, chainsaws, and blunt and savage pulaskis.
These characters and their props suggested impending catastrophe, and the woods
on this peaceful, lovely day were far from quiet or empty. Pump trucks and local
volunteer firefighters stood parked and ready at the pull-offs along the north
end of the Gunflint Trail, the dirt two-lane that arcs far into the eastern end
of the wilderness area. In resort parking lots, lights flashed from EMT trucks
and ambulances, army reservist Hummers, and search-and-rescue vehicles. Police
cruisers, gumballs revolving, patrolled each infrequent intersection.
Still, the scene lacked urgency, as if the fine fall day had lulled the emergency
crews into complacency. Cops stood smoking beside their vehicles. Emergency workers
sat in trucks or vans talking, drinking coffee, and munching donuts. The hotshot
crews on Magnetic Lake let their boats drift in the light breeze, napping on coiled
bundles of hose, life preservers, and water bladders. Some formed small flotillas.
Everyone waited, poised but inactive. The sun climbed higher. The relative humidity
dropped. The dew began to dry.
Then the bass, subsonic thump, thump, thump of powerful helicopter blades slicing
the cool morning air shattered the quiet. The hotshot crews on Magnetic Lake turned
to watch as three Bell 206 helicopters rose above the ridge on the western shore
like predatory drones, advancing on the wilderness in attack formation. Swinging
on long cables below the Bells were heliotorches, fifty-five-gallon drums of gasoline
mixed with detergent—homemade napalm—outfitted with a simple torch
and sprayer. The ‘copters flew to the north shore of the Wilderness Lake
just beyond the mansion, hovered there, and then sent a shower of flame cascading
down upon the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Plumes of white smoke rose almost immediately, within a few minutes turning a
dark black. The helicopters’ swirling rotors caught and churned the thick
fume, engulfing the aircraft, forcing a retreat by degrees, the burning rain pouring
from the heliotorches onto the wilderness. Then the barrels were empty. The Bells
swung away northwest, in formation.
Three others advanced to continue the assault. The smoke formed a solid column,
straight and dense and impenetrable, a convection plume. It rose to three thousand
feet, then five thousand, then higher. The flames glowed within the tower of black
smoke, animating the destruction. Support aircraft, three De Haviland Beavers,
and the command platform, a Cessna 182, circled the pillar of smoke.
On the ground the fire spread greedily. Whole trees caught at once and exploded
with flame, sending showers of crackling bark, burning wood shards, and resinous
pinecones shooting hundreds of feet into the sky. The roar of fire became deafening,
drowning out even the helicopters, like the sound of a freight train, or a wind
tunnel, or a jet engine. Still the crews sat idly, more attentive but inactive.
This massive collection of human and emergency resources had been sent north to
burn this area, not to save it. Unless the fire escaped the parameters set forth
in the prescription, they would do nothing. So began a new phase in the evolving
drama between humans and the northern Minnesota border lakes region. Setting the
three-thousand-acre Magnetic Lake fire inside the Boundary Waters was the first
practical expression of an emerging wilderness management paradigm: restoration
The effort was in response to catastrophe: on July 4, 1999, the weather system
that went on to earn fame as the “Perfect Storm” blew down almost
500,000 acres of trees in the border lakes region, creating the world’s
largest tinderbox, awaiting a single match. Members of the Forest Service decided
that fire they expected—that they set themselves—was preferable to
one they could not predict.
The threat of catastrophic wildfire had forced land managers to abandon many of
the primary assumptions they once held regarding land and to violate previously
sacrosanct rules. Suddenly, the Forest Service was obliged to take a more active
hand in managing the border lakes wilderness. This was the first time the Forest
Service set prescribed fire inside a federally designated wilderness, despite
the fact that ecologists had been urging them to do so since the mid-1970s. Still,
there is no plan to set ecologically motivated wildfire in the Boundary Waters:
burn plans will treat only the fuel loads from the July 4 storm, ending after
the Forest Service has burned the 74,000 acres. Protection of private property
is the only goal, and two years were required for the Forest Service to take even
that halting, cumbersome step.
But the Magnetic Lake burn opened the door a crack to restoration forestry. Forty
years after the September 3, 1964, passage of the Wilderness Act, which set aside
land including the Boundary Waters and forbade any human intervention in its processes,
land managers are beginning to see problems in this hands-off policy. “Restoration”
presupposes human involvement and management of a system, even a “pristine
wilderness,” at first glance seems contradictory to the ideals of the Wilderness
Act. But anthropomorphic fire was a part of the wildness that modern life has
suppressed. Man-made fire is an integral part of a wild, natural landscape.
Studying charcoal layers in the soils of the Boundary Waters, researcher Bud Heinselman
discovered that, before European incursion, about ten thousand acres had burned
inside the wilderness boundaries each year. Under the Forest Service Wildland
Fire Use Rule, initiated in 1987 and allowing only natural fires to burn, such
fires consumed on average only fifteen hundred acres annually, logically inspiring
the question: how, historically, did the other 8,500 acres burn? The answer reveals
a deep and almost universal cultural bias.
The idea that Aboriginal Americans were few in number and lived in roving bands
hunting and gathering a providential bounty—that they lived in harmony with
nature, that their impact on the environment was negligible at most and benign
at least—is one of the cornerstones of western environmental thought. It
is also without much corroborative evidence.
Most histories of the Americas begin in 1492, with the aboriginals cast either
as tragic Adams and Eves or as unfortunate obstacles to progress, their stories
swept aside in favor of Euro-centric perspectives. Only recently have historians,
aided by anthropologists, archaeologists, botanists, ecologists, geneticists,
and others, begun to paint a picture of America that includes an accurate and
detailed account of the aboriginals that once lived here and the impact they had
on the ecosystems Europeans found.
The far-reaching implications of these more detailed histories call into question
some of our culture’s most popular myths. Aboriginal Americans managed their
environment intensively, at the landscape scale and with a great degree of sophistication.
What whites discovered when they arrived in the New World was not a bountiful
natural providence in balance but a cultural artifact, the carefully designed
and managed landscapes of a people recently deceased or rapidly vanishing.
Americans have traditionally underestimated not only the number of people living
on this continent before European incursion but also the impact these people had,
their relationship with the environment, and the degree to which they changed
the world around them to suit their needs. The answer to how the extra 8,500 acres
in the Boundary Waters burned before white settlement was hidden beneath a blanket-like
cultural bias. Not only were anthropomorphic fires “natural” in the
Boundary Waters, aboriginal burning most likely established and maintained the
basic ecological patterns of the border lakes long before Europeans arrived.
William Denevan, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin, calls the long-held
fallacy that the Europeans “discovered” in the Americas a natural,
trackless, pristine wilderness that supported only a small population of benign
natives living in harmony with a climax ecosystem “the pristine myth.”
This myth was central to the philosophy that inspired the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Minnesota governor and ex-secretary of agriculture Orville Freeman described the
wilderness movement as the recognition of value in “a primitive sanctuary
undisturbed by the works of Man,” and while the Wilderness Act did protect
certain areas from the ravages of industry, the pristine myth affected management
decisions even as ecologists pointed out increasing problems. Managers refused
to recognize the historic role of tribal fires and refused to set prescribed burns
even as fuel loads built to twenty times historic levels. Modern hubris obscured
the role indigenous Americans had played in the ecology of northern Minnesota’s
In the able hands of the aboriginals, fire created diverse and abundant landscapes
across the continent, “optimizing” the land by initiating opportunities
for multiple species and age classes and rich, varied regeneration. In northern
Minnesota, tribal peoples created prairies for favored prey like antelope, elk,
moose, and, at the forest’s western edge, buffalo. They used fire in warfare,
burned underbrush from dense forests to facilitate travel and hunting, torched
brush to control insects, flamed swamps to eradicate disease, burned woodlands
to lower fuel loads and prevent catastrophic blazes, and built their villages
in cleared spaces where they would be safer from unexpected fires.
At the other extreme, today’s industrial landscape management strategies—plowing,
clear cutting, fertilizing, spraying herbicides and pesticides, suppressing fire—all
tend to “maximize” land, narrowing diversity, creating uniform age
classes, and augmenting the production of a few desired plant or animal species
at the exclusion of others.
ecologists argue that “pre-settlement” conditions ought to refer to
the burn regimes the aboriginals had established, not to the landscapes those
regimes produced. After all, much of the abundance so many early pioneers noted
was due to the sudden decline in hunting pressure when aboriginal populations
crashed due to European-introduced diseases, conditions difficult to replicate
today. The aboriginal system was the first phase of human land management in America,
and it created the landscape that so enthralled the first wave of pioneers.2
By the 1900s the destructive practices of industrialized logging in northern Minnesota
forced a paradigm shift. The Forest Service promised a land management model that
more closely resembled aboriginal land ownership styles. The United States formed
an overarching authority to manage publicly owned wildlands—the resources
of the land, the animals, the water, and the woods—for the benefit of all,
stipulating that their use be sustainable over time.
A few years after the 1909 creation of Superior National Forest, Forest Service
manager George Cecil wrote: “Communities will depend on the National Forests
for a steady supply of timber, and if we cannot meet this demand, we shall have
failed in our mission. [It is] doubly important that we regulate National Forest
cuttings with the greatest consideration for the future welfare of the local communities.”
Cecil’s letter clearly phrases the goals of the early Forest Service, its
paradigm “sustained yield,” its objective a continued harvest of natural
resources at the maximum rate possible, its focus on the sustainability of the
yield, not necessarily on the sustenance of the resource. It proposed an end to
the cut-and-run days of the past in favor of maintaining communities and prolonging
This goal remains elusive. Communities are being lost and families broken as children
leave defunct lumbering towns in search of economic opportunity in urban centers.
The absence of seed source and the effects of blister rust and, most importantly,
deer browse ensure that big pine logging will not return to northern Minnesota.
While the 2003 Superior National Forest Plan redefines the forest based on landscape
ecosystems, with large areas designated “Mesic [Moist] White Pine–Red
Pine Ecosystem” or “Dry White Pine–Red Pine Ecosystem,”
the draft plan acknowledges, “In 2001 clear cutting was still the dominant
type of harvest occurring on the National Forests in Minnesota. In order to improve
the economy of northern Minnesota, the State attracted more mills. Pulp mill capacity
has increased since 1986.”4
From 1986 to 1994 the volume of both old-growth (120 years or more) and pole-sized
(less than 30 years) pine tumbled in Minnesota, a trend contrary to that of other
Great Lake states and the East Coast. Today Minnesota contains less than one-tenth
of one percent of the white pine it had before settlement. Economic rather than
ecological realities have had a profound impact on Minnesota’s national
concerned with environmental protection have comforted themselves that at least
a portion of northern Minnesota was protected from industry, and they have fought
hard to keep these safeguards in place. Wilderness aesthetics and recreation do
not fulfill ecological considerations, however; they will not sustain the ecosystem.
The havoc wreaked by the July 4 storm, its destruction made worse by years of
fire suppression, is the most obvious example. But the fact that white, red, and
jack pine populations will continue to decline is another. The 1964 Wilderness
Act, while important in protecting the forests from destruction by industry, does
not guarantee the long-term viability of the wilderness ecosystems or the revenues
The 2003 Forest Plan, with its emphasis on ecosystem management, represents a
departure from the sustained-yield or multiple-use paradigms that drove previous
plans. Ecosystem management is the Forest Service’s first, halting step
away from the pristine myth, the first practical admission that humans are part
of the natural environment. But ecosystem management does not apply to Wilderness
Areas, and the Magnetic Lake burn was set only for public safety purposes. The
Forest Service still fails to recognize the historic role humans have played in
Ecosystem management does not mean that the Forest Service will be setting prescribed
burns for ecological benefits in the Boundary Waters, nor does it mean there will
necessarily be less resource extraction from the national forest. Because this
paradigm recognizes that the land must serve human needs, industrial use of the
national forests might well increase. Ecosystem management does acknowledge that
understanding and protecting ecosystem processes is essential if there is to be
a lasting supply of the materials and experiences that people require.
Sustaining both ecological and economic systems is imperative, since they are
inextricably linked and the well being of either is dependent on the well being
of the other over time. But as conditions on the ground are altered by fuel build-ups
or catastrophic events, as the reality of historic aboriginal management is more
widely accepted, as more people trained in disturbance ecology make their way
up the ladder within managing bureaucracies, policies will gradually shift to
more of a restoration focus.6
The Wilderness Act’s authors could never have imagined bombing the Boundary
Waters with napalm, yet forty years later just that happened. Perhaps most amazing
is the fact that there were no protests, no dissenters, no opposition to the plan,
unlike just a few years earlier, when the question of using a single truck to
haul boats over the Fourmile Portage had sparked rallies with hundreds of protesters
on each side. The Magnetic Lake burn is the first quiet high-water mark of change,
change that is just beginning and that will accelerate in the future. ||
1. Charles C. Mann, “1491” Atlantic Monthly 289:41 (March 2002):
42; Donald N. Baldwin, The Quiet Revolution: Grass Roots of Today’s Wilderness
Preservation Movement, Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing Co., 1972, vii.
2. usda Forest Service, “Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Forest
Plan Revision, Superior National Forest.” Duluth, MN: The Service, 2003,
p. 3.5–5. Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/ chippewa/plan/revision/draft/plan_snf/index.shtml
3. Quoted in David A. Clary, Timber and the Forest Service, Lawrence: University
Press of Kansas, 1986, 27; George H. Cecil to the Forester, 6 May 1911, Forest
Service, Dist. 1, S & ST District, Policy 1911–1913, R1, 63-A 209/82498,
National Archives and Records Services, Washington, DC.
4. Ralphe Bonde, interview by Jeff Forester, 15 December 1994, transcript, Wilderness
Research Foundation; usda Forest Service, “Draft Environmental Impact,”
5. Jan Green to Joe Barnier, District Ranger, Gunflint Ranger District, 5 September
1994, Wilderness Research Foundation files.
6. David T. Cleland, Thomas R. Crow, and John R. Probst, “Multiple Objectives
and Ecological Tools,” in R. A. Stine, ed. White Pine Symposium Proceedings:
History, Ecology, Policy and Management. St. Paul: Minnesota Extension Service,
University of Minnesota, 1991, 108.
Excerpted in part from The Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North
Woods, by Jeff Forester, copyright © Minnesota Historical Society Press,