Voyageurs National Park is a wonderland of lakes, streams, forests, and wildlife. It is also one of the few places in North America where you can see and touch rocks half the age of the Earth. The exposed rock is the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the gigantic dome of volcanic bedrock that forms the core of the continent.
As this special site gets ready to celebrate its 52nd year as a national park on January 8, it’s worth looking back on its controversial beginnings. Voyageurs is a park that took 80 years to create!
All the way back in 1891, the Minnesota Legislature passed a resolution requesting that the federal government create a national park in Minnesota by “setting apart a tract of land along the northern boundary of the state.” Congress never acted upon the request but that didn’t stop nature lovers from continuing to press for some form of federal protection for the forest and water resources of northeastern Minnesota, especially the border lakes region. History lovers, too, wanted the area preserved to commemorate the intrepid French-Canadian voyageurs who once criss-crossed its lakes and streams to transport furs and other goods.
However, opposition to the national park proposal was fierce, especially from business interests who wanted to take advantage of the area’s abundant natural resources, primarily forests, minerals, and water. The battle also pitted locals against what they called “outsiders,” i.e., lawmakers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and “land grabbing” federal lawmakers.
The stalemate continued through the mid-20th century until the 1950s and 1960s, when park proponents managed to interest the National Park Service in developing a plan for a national park. In October of 1962, the NPS Advisory Board submitted a formal recommendation to the Secretary of Interior, noting that the area was “superbly qualified to be designated the second national park in the Midwest.” (Isle Royale was the first national park in the region.)
It took years for the park’s enabling legislation to pass Congress, part of which required the State of Minnesota to donate 36,000 acres of state-owned land to the effort. Many local residents were still opposed, seeing the move as encroachment by the federal government that would limit logging and hunting in the area and decrease taxable property.
But finally in 1971 President Nixon signed the Voyageurs bill into law, though the site wouldn’t be officially established as the nation’s 36th national park until 1975.
After the creation of the park, NPS began planning and constructing trails, boating sites, and other visitor amenities; it also established the area as a site for scientific research and conservation. In 1992, a wildlife protection zone was established for the gray wolf. More than 220 Indigenous pre-contact sites have been identified within the park, some of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The path to national park status isn’t always smooth. But JNPA, for one, is gratified that Voyageurs will continue to protect this invaluable wilderness experience for all Americans.