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The one sentence from 1977 that explains the complicated reality of Ely, Minn.

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Ely city limits
Population sign on the edge of Ely, Minn.
Photo courtesy Becca Dilley/The Heavy Table

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To mark the 50th anniversary of Minnesota Public Radio, Tom Weber traveled to Ely to look back at the environmental debates of the past 50 years, and ahead to the next 50 years.This segment ran as part of MPR News' Jan. 22 anniversary special broadcast

When the federal government came to the Minnesota State Capitol in the summer of 1977, a single piece of testimony crystallized the debate that has engulfed the town of Ely for decades.

It was July 7, 1977, and a congressional hearing over the future of the Boundary Waters seethed along in St. Paul. 

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was caught between competing proposals from two members of Minnesota's congressional delegation. The area had been formally declared a federal wilderness area in 1964, but enough exceptions had been written into that law that the intervening years had been filled with challenges to rules over logging, mining, snowmobiling and the use of motorized boats. 

Portaging in the Boundary Waters around 1980
Two men portage a canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness around 1980.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The result was a patchwork, said U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, who then represented the area that includes the Boundary Waters: "Semi-wilderness, semi-recreational use with escape clauses that have confused and muddled the management of that area."

"The BWCA lands belongs to all of the people of the United States. In the end ... national interests must supersede local concerns."

Oberstar's answer to the confusion had been to propose a bill that would split the BWCA into a wilderness area that banned logging and motors and a recreation area that allowed motors. 

Critics said Oberstar's bill would reduce the total acreage dedicated to wilderness, so they had worked with U.S. Rep. Don Fraser, DFL-Minneapolis, to propose the competing bill. Fraser's bill would make the entire BWCA a wilderness area and enact a total ban on logging and motors.

The debate came to a head on July 7 in St. Paul, as temperatures climbed to the high 80s. It was an unusual location: Congress typically holds hearings in Washington, but members took the rare step of scheduling two hearings in Minnesota — one in the capital city and one in Ely — to discuss the Oberstar and Fraser bills. 

State Rep. Willard Munger, circa 1975
State Rep. Willard Munger, circa 1975
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The second hearing, which was held the following day, included protests that involved logging trucks lining the town's streets and effigies of environmentalists Sigurd Olson and Bud Heinselman hanging from a truck. 

During the hours of testimony in St. Paul, one sentence from longtime state Rep. Willard Munger, DFL-Duluth, perfectly framed the conflict that has long raged in Ely over how the area is and should be managed.

Munger, known by some as "Mr. Environment" for his conservation work during more than 40 years in the state Legislature, made a plea for making the BWCA a full wilderness area: 

"There is an increased need for solitude in our lives. There is an increased need for the opportunity to appreciate nature and to experience the land in its natural, undisturbed state."

And then, the key line: 

"The BWCA lands belongs to all of the people of the United States. In the end ... national interests must supersede local concerns."

Munger's words — "national interests must supersede local concerns" — perfectly frame the rub in Ely.

The pristine wilderness that has come to be a national treasure and part of what it means to be a Minnesotan is now managed by the U.S. Forest Service, much to the chagrin of local Ely residents. Critics say the processes required to access the Boundary Waters through permits, for example, favor out-of-town guests over locals who want to live in Ely precisely because of its proximity to the Boundary Waters.

"When you live in the town, you get the sense that everybody on the outside's trying to tell you how the heck to run your life," said Ely mayor Chuck Novak. "People with bigger bullets call the shots and you have to end up living with it."

Downtown Ely
Ely is a popular launch pad for canoe trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Downtown Ely's Sheridan Street is a busy place on a July afternoon in 2013.
MPR News | File 2013

"But that water and those woods aren't clean because all the visitors come up and take care of it," Novak said. "We like our playground. We take care of it. We pick up the trash. We don't poison the water. And when you come up to enjoy it, just remember: It's the local people that really cherish that, too."

Steve Piragis, who runs a well-known outfitter in Ely and has long been vocal on the side of protection, understands why people are upset. 

"If your grandparents had a tradition of fishing out of a motorized canoe for 75 years, three or four generations back, you'd be hurt if this privilege were taken away," he said. "I understand that."

Flying in to Crooked Lake, 1950
Part of air equipment used to reach Crooked Lake Fishing Camp, in what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in approximately 1950.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

But those people tend to overlook the fact, he said, that the BWCA is a national wilderness area. It's owned by all the people of America. Thousands visit the area every year to experience it in a different way than the way some local residents have traditionally enjoyed it.

"There's a built-in conflict," Piragis said.

And that conflict still rages, touching mining, climate change, wolf hunting, the economy and the environment in Ely, where local residents often find themselves torn between protecting them and protecting local jobs. To hear more from Ely residents about how that conflict plays out every day in town, click the audio player above.