It passed the U.S. Senate in the last minutes of the last day of a Congressional session that may have been its last chance to pass.
Democrats were in power in Minnesota and in Washington, and several Minnesotans were in President Jimmy Carter's administration when the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act passed Congress on Oct. 15, 1978. That included Vice President Walter Mondale and Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, whose department oversaw the U.S. Forest Service that managed what was then the BWCA.
The issue of wilderness, the definition of what wilderness should be in Minnesota's Boundary Waters, was dividing the party at home, and DFLers were anxious to put the issue behind them.
After years of rancorous debate, the Senate quietly passed a version of the bill late at night on Oct. 4, 1978, by a voice vote, with no record of who voted yes or no. Eleven days later, after an all-night session, the House passed the bill 248-111 early on a Sunday morning.
Then for hours as the clock ticked down, nothing happened. It turned out the bill had ended up in the wrong pile, headed to the White House and not the Senate where final concurrence was still needed. Eventually a House staffer found the bill and raced it across the Capitol. No one ever knew how the bill was misplaced.
The Senate concurred at 12:30 p.m. that Sunday afternoon. By 3 p.m. everyone had adjourned to go home.
Carter quietly signed the BWCAW bill into law Oct. 21.
Passage of the bill was preceded by years of hearings in Washington, Duluth, Ely and on the Gunflint Trail as Minnesotans battled each other over the value of wild places weighed against the value of timber, resort and mining jobs and motorized access to BWCA lakes. Washington officials eventually told Minnesotans to figure out the details on their own or outsiders would do it for them.
So Chuck Dayton, a Minneapolis attorney representing environmental groups, and Ron Walls, the Ely city attorney representing motorized interests, hammered out the structure of what is now the BWCAW over three days in 1978: What places would be inside the wilderness borders, what lakes would be out; where motors could and could not be used, for how long, and what size they could be; what truck portages would remain open under what circumstances. (Motors are now allowed on just 18 lakes out of more than 1,100 in the wilderness.)
The Dayton-Walls compromise was flatly, vehemently denounced by both sides, and the negotiators were cast as traitors by some. But Sen. Wendell "Wendy" Anderson, D-Minn., fighting for his political life (he had been a popular governor but wasn't as popular after being appointed to the Senate) gambled that the compromise might finally end the strife and help his campaign. He lost the gamble.
"They ended up with a compromise nobody really liked, except Anderson, who grabbed onto it hoping he could settle it once and for all. He liked it enough to carry it in the Senate, and it passed,'' said Kevin Proescholdt, at the time a volunteer for Friends of the Boundary Waters working behind the scenes in Washington. Proescholdt is now conservation director for the group Wilderness Watch.
The next year, many of the key players would not be back in Washington, critics say in large part because they supported the BWCAW bill. Anderson would be defeated in his 1978 election bid. U.S. Rep. Don Fraser, D-Minneapolis, one of the biggest BWCAW supporters and who authored the House bill, ran for the Senate but was defeated in the DFL primary by Bob Short who opposed the BWCAW. Republicans would sweep into office in all major Minnesota races as Twin Cities and northern DFLers battled among themselves. The BWCAW was a key issue in the DFL demise ("Unappoint Wendy" and "Dump Fraser" bumper stickers adorned northern Minnesota).
"I think a lot of people assume now that it was destined to happen, or that it was some sort of done deal. But we didn't know what was going to happen until the very last minute when the Senate voted," Proescholdt said.
Wilderness advocates say the 1978 act was critical because the nationwide 1964 Wilderness Act left an asterisk next to the BWCA. Until 1978, the Minnesota "wilderness" was still open to logging in some areas, potential mining in others and lots of motors - motor boats in summer and snowmobiles in winter were allowed on nearly two-thirds of the BWCA.
"The 1978 act really defined BWCAW the way most of us (supporters) had envisioned it, with some exceptions still. But it gave it the true wilderness stamp that it missed in 1964,'' Proescholdt said.
Ted Young was on the other side in 1978. Now the longtime owner of Boundary Country Trekking outfitters on the Gunflint Trail, Young was a paid staff member of the Boundary Waters Conservation Alliance, the northern Minnesota group that vehemently fought against federal wilderness status for the BWCA.
Young was a professional community organizer for labor unions, and unions - especially Steelworkers - had an influence on the the anti-wilderness effort. He moved north from Chicago to help fight what was being portrayed as environmental extremism. He and his wife, Barbara, eventually came back to live on the wilderness edge and still outfit customers who trek into the BWCAW.
"From the point of view of an outfitter, it (the BWCAW legislation) was a boon to our commercial businesses up here. It limited supply and stirred up demand and business has been good for 40 years. Maybe too good now... it's getting crowded up here,'' Young said.
"But for the local resident up here, it took away the recreational access. Losing (motorboats and snowmobiles) was a big deal when fishing is why people live up here,'' Young added. "We knew logging was gone, that we weren't going to keep that. But losing the recreational access, that's what people really fought against'' in 1978.
Forty years later the Boundary Waters is the most popular federal wilderness area in the nation, attracting some 150,000 visitors annually. The more than 1 million-acre wilderness remains a magnet for paddlers, avid anglers and hunters who seek to get away from crowds - away from personal watercraft, bass boats and ski boats - and get back to basics; simple fishing, simple hunting, where traditional skills are required.
Moreover, anglers and hunters keep going back to the BWCAW because the fishing and hunting are good.
"I'm happy with what we have now,'' Young said. "We aren't going to relive the past. Things change. And in this case it worked out pretty well."
Years of lawsuits and counter-suits followed the 1978 act, but the momentum shifted to wilderness advocates as the Forest Service slowly adopted formal wilderness management.
While there has been no recent attempt to undo the protections of 1978, supporters of the wilderness say threats loom that could forever change the region. At the top of that list, they say, is the potential of polluted runoff tainting waters that run into the BWCAW from copper-nickel mines just outside the wilderness. Those mines don't exist yet. But at least one, the Twin Metals project near Ely, is on the drawing board. (Proescholdt said copper mining near the wilderness was on the radar in 1978 but that it wasn't on the table to be settled in the BWCAW legislation.)
Forty years after its creation, copper mining on the edge of the BWCAW has once again placed the wilderness in the midst of a regional, even national debate between natural resource extraction jobs and preserving wild places. Political and social battles are again being fought over how close mining will be allowed to the BWCAW - whether mining should be allowed along waters that run into the wilderness even if industry says it will take precautions to prevent any pollution.
While there have been other, ongoing issues about cell phone towers, motor permits and snowmobile trails just outside the wilderness, Proescholdt said the BWCAW had been mostly heading in the direction that supporters envisioned in 1978, that most changes had been for the better. Until copper mining moved to the forefront.
Mining supporters say the BWCAW will remain pristine and protected through technological innovation and strong regulations. Proescholdt isn't as sure.
"All of it is imperiled by sulfide ore mining,'' Proescholdt said. A polluted wilderness "really isn't wilderness any more."