A Case Study in Political Compromise: The BWCWA

Politics has been called “the art of compromise,” a concept that seems to be rapidly disappearing from American political culture. Ideological extremists can’t maintain their purity if they compromise, and purity is more important than achievement to such small-minded folks. Fortunately, the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area (BWCWA) was created before the ideological polarization of America.

The BWCWA comprises 1 million acres within the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota, along the border of Canada. Across the border is Canada’s Quetico Wilderness Area, making the BWCWA/Quetico one of North America’s largest wilderness areas.

The region can be visualized as a series of concentric rings containing lakes. In the outer ring are a series of large lakes, some within the Superior National Forest and some just outside its boundaries, that are open to large motorboats. The middle ring, all within the Superior National Forest, and existing partly within and partly outside of the BWCWA has some lakes on which boats with a maximum of 25 hp motors can be used. On the inner ring lakes, no motors are allowed at all. (There are some exceptions in Canada, for native peoples, but I’m focusing on the U.S. side of the border.)

This is an eminently sensible solution. The outer lakes are easily accessible by road and provide opportunity for weekender fishermen from the Twin Cities, etc., to get on the water quickly, catch some fish and get back home for work on Monday morning. The middle set is often accessible only by dirt roads, and mostly–although not without exception–tend to be smaller, so large motors are not well-suited to them, but boaters/fisherman whose abilities or interests don’t run to human-powered craft can still get a semi-wilderness experience. And in the interior, those who want a true wilderness experience can paddle for days on end without hearing a boat motor. There’s something for everyone.

This compromise is not necessarily an equilibrium, unfortunately. There are people who view half-victories as total losses. Some liberals would like to restrict access even further, while some conservatives would like to open up access even further. However the compromise does seem to have a certain inertia, or weight, that makes it hard to move. The very fact of it being a compromise, the ability to note that the complainer has achieved some gains, and is now trying to ensure the other side gets nothing, makes for a tough political row to hoe.

It is inevitable that human societies will develop order and rules to organize the resource uses of their members–whether the resource is forests, fish, radiowave frequency, or use of street intersections–and the question is how we can keep those ordering rules fairly unintrusive while trying to make reasonable benefits available to every stakeholder. It may not be often that we can say we’ve achieved that. In the case of the BWCWA, I think we have. That doesn’t mean all the rules are beyond dispute. For example, I think the ban on burning paper trash makes little sense (except when there’s a general fire ban due to dry weather). But we can always quibble about details. It’s the overall structure governing how we use the region that is the big issue, and in this case, that overall structure is about as wise as government policy ever gets.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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One Response to A Case Study in Political Compromise: The BWCWA

  1. Scott Hanley says:

    I’ve encountered the same thing regarding national parks. Some people think there should be roads everywhere in the park, even to areas that wouldn’t be the least bit exceptional if there were roads. Others claimed there should be no roads in the park at all, even though they didn’t hike much in the less accessible parts of the surrounding national forests. There’s a level of balance between safety and adventure to suit almost every taste and if that means I’ll probably never hike the Thorofare region, or that the Bechler region is a bit crowded, and the Upper Geyser Basin is all but urban, that’s a compromise worth making. It maintains a constituency for both the parks and the wilderness areas.

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