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Bill that designated Boundary Waters Canoe Area turns 50

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The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is celebrating a landmark anniversary Wednesday as the passage of a conservation bill that protects the land in northern Minnesota turns 50, MPR News reports.

Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act helped create the National Wilderness Preservation System, which forever protected 54 areas comprising of 9.1 million acres from development. Among those 9.1 million acres was more than 1 million acres known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The passage of the Boundary Waters bill by Congress in 1978 officially added the word "Wilderness" to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area designation, but the area is still often referred to as the "BWCA" as well as the "BWCAW."

The Star Tribune says special compromise language in the 1964 bill that allowed logging and motorboats to continue in the area was also removed in the 1978 bill.

According to, the BWCAW extends nearly 150 miles along the international boundary adjacent to Canada's Quetico Provincial Park. Bordered on the west by Voyageurs National Park, the BWCAW includes 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 11 hiking trails and approximately 2,000 designated campsites.

While the land was made a part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, the area was initially set aside for preservation in 1926.

According to MPR News, Ely community college teacher and writer Sigurd Olson was a national leader in the fight to pass the Wilderness Act, even though it pitted him against many in Ely because he wanted to restrict human activity in the area.

In 1956, Olson's friend, then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey, initially introduced the bill for the Wilderness Act, the publication says.

According to the Duluth News Tribune, the bill finally passed eight years later after 66 revisions, 18 public hearings and about 6,000 pages of public testimony.

Among the authors of the U.S. House bill was former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie, then a Republican congressman representing southeastern Minnesota.

Now 90, Quie tells the News Tribune that there was little opposition to the bill and says wilderness was not a partisan issue.

Quie – who told the newspaper that it “just made good sense” to have a law to protect one of the last remaining wild places in the U.S. – was at the podium with Johnson when he signed the bill.

The blog Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has a complete timeline of the establishment of the BWCAW, recounting events from 1902 to 1999. The organization says more than 250,000 people visit the BWCAW annually.

The Wilderness Society has also named the BWCAW as one of the "20 wilderness areas to see before you die."

The celebration of the passage of the Wilderness Act comes just after President Barack Obama issued a proclamation declaring September as National Wilderness Month.

Also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and BWCAW is noted Minnesota adventure couple Dave and Amy Freeman.

The Pioneer Press says the Freemans were expected to kick off their 100-day trip Sunday. They are paddling a canoe and sailing a boat from Ely to Washington, D.C.

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