By Ruth Conniff
My family and I are just back from the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. The beauty, the sound of the loons at night, and the chance to get away from technology and enjoy the sheer physical pleasure of hiking and swimming and being outdoors makes summer vacation up north a cherished annual trek.
This year, we visited the home of the late Sigurd Olson, one of the authors of the Federal Wilderness Act, which turns fifty on September 3.
Thanks to the work of Olson and his contemporaries, we now have almost 110 million acres of protected wild places in America.
It was a tremendously difficult and controversial achievement.
Olson, who wrote beautifully about his love of the wilderness in his nine classic books, was burned in effigy in Ely, Minnesota, in 1978.
The law he helped create, and the designation of his beloved Boundary Waters as protected land, drove the resort owners, snowmobilers, motor-boaters, and logging and mining interests from more than a million acres in what would become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Some people never forgave him.
“This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent,” Olson told a jeering crowd in Ely as Congress considered the area’s wilderness designation in 1978. “We can afford to cherish and protect it. Some places should be preserved from development and exploitation, for they satisfy a human need for solace, belonging, and perspective. In the end we turn to nature in a frenzied chaotic world, there to find silence—oneness—wholeness—spiritual release.”
Or, as Lyndon Johnson put it when he signed the Wilderness Act, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
Our need for nature is stronger than ever today. Take it from someone coming back from a week of being unplugged.
But the threats are greater, too.
In his book Listening Point Olson wrote about the magical days and nights he spent camping, fishing, and soaking up the beauty of the area, how he moved an old, Finnish cabin board by board, admiring its perfect craftsmanship, and setting it back from the shore line so it wouldn’t interrupt the view from a passing canoe.
Our guide, who was moved to tears in Olson’s little cabin, is deeply involved in the fight over the greatest existential threat to the area since the signing of the Act: proposed sulfide mining that could poison the watershed in this pristine, protected land.
We have a similar mining battle here in Wisconsin.
As depressing and challenging as these fights are, freighted with the sense of impending destruction of a fragile, beautiful world, it is inspiring to remember the heroes of the early conservation movement.
They faced the same enemies—the tea partiers of their day, and the big business interests.
But for once, human values won against the interests of massive multinational conglomerates.
Beauty triumphed over commerce.
Canoers, hikers, and the Native American tribes who harvest wild rice trumped the lumber barons and the mines.
This summer, on August 24, a canoe is departing from Ely for a 100-day “Paddle to DC."
Dave and Amy Freeman are making the journey to draw attention to the threat sulfide mining poses to their community, the watershed, and the wilderness they love.
Our superstar publisher, Lisa Graves, is fresh back from a different sort of trip to Washington, DC. You may have seen her on Democracy Now, breaking the news that Charles Koch—not just his father—was a member of the John Birch Society.
That piece made a big splash on our website.
And it is particularly outrageous because, as Lisa writes, Charles Koch was a member of the John Birch Society just when it was launching its loathsome attacks on civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr, and trying to impeach Earl Warren, while supporting the police who assaulted marchers in Birmingham.
Way back in 1964, The Progressive was warning about the John Birch society and its insidious support of white segregationists in the South.
That was during Freedom Summer.
Looking back through the 1964 bound volume of Progressive magazines, you can read many first-hand accounts of the great civil rights struggle that year.
A chilling report on violent white separatists in St. Augustine, Forida, in September 1964, is titled “Fear and the Far Right.”
White segregationists marched on a black neighborhood, only to find a “Welcome” sign, and “lining both sides of the street for fully three blocks, were hundreds of Negroes,” wrote Pat Watters, information director of the Southern Regional Council.
“They outnumbered the marchers at least three to one. All they did was to stand almost motionless and sing a civil rights hymn, “I love everybody; I love everybody; I love everybody in my heart.”
Yet, “When Negroes made their marches into the downtown section, they were met nightly by a white crowd, jeering, throwing rocks and bricks, and attacking with fists, clubs, and such weapons as bottles of acid and bicycle chains.”
Civil right leader Hosea Williams declared, “We will bleed and die that America shall be free.”
The article ends with this observation:
“St. Augustine’s experience demonstrates what befalls a city when the forces of terrorism and the far-right, as symbolized by the Klan and the Birch Society, dictate public policy by exploiting the racism which the Republican campaign disclaims, but comforts.”
So, too, today.
We are in good company with the fighters for progressive values of fifty years ago, who were animated not by hate, but by love.