The Forgotten Forest

BLAIR FRASER October 15 1953


The Forgotten Forest

BLAIR FRASER October 15 1953



The Forgotten Forest

CANADIANS often accuse the United States Government of dragging its feet in matters of mutual concern—ratifying agreements, authorizing joint projects, or executing policies that both governments support. The St. Lawrence Seaway, a recent case in point, is a favorite outlet for Canadian indignation and self-righteousness.

It may do us good to know that another draft international agreement has been gathering dust in Ottawa for nearly four years, untouched and virtually unknown. This despite the fact that it grew in the first place out of a Canadian idea, and certainly would protect Canadian as well as American interests. The U. S. State Department sent a draft to Ottawa in December 1949. The last correspondence on the subject is dated January 1950, and the file itself was so inactive that it took External Affairs several hours to find it in a basement vault of the East Block. To all intents and purposes Canada had forgotten it.

This treaty would establish an International Peace Forest as a memorial to the dead of both countries in both world wars. The forest covers the wilderness lake country just west of Lake Superior.

The region is a natural historic monument—two million acres of it, lying on each side of the international border in roughly equal halves. It is the canoe route followed by the discoverers of the North American west. It was the route of the Sieur de la Verendrye, the first white man to lay eyes on the Rockies; of Alexander Mackenzie, the first white man to cross the northern stretches of the continent; of explorer and map-maker

David Thompson, and of that fabulous Hudson’s Bay Company governor Sir George Simpson.

What makes it a historic monument, and not merely a historic site like the routes of Champlain or Jacques Cartier, is the amazing fact that this country is still very much as the discoverers found it. Civilization has passed it by. Much of it is still virgin forest, and all of it still empty wilderness—perhaps emptier today than when it was the highway of the western fur trade. There, preserved as if in amber, is the land as de la Verendrye saw it more than two hundred years ago.

IT WAS SAVED in the first place more or less by accident. This is the easiest, indeed the only way west when your only means of transport is canoe and portage. By other means it was singularly inaccessible and not particularly rich, so the first wave of logging went past it. Not until iron was discovered and mined at Mesabi, toward the end of the last century, did it seem worth while to cut any of these forests, and even those operations were soon abandoned— for the time being. In the early nineteen-hundreds it was wilderness again.

That was when a Canadian, W. A. Preston, of Rainy Lake, first realized what a historical rarity had been left to us. He was a member of the Ontario Legislature, and he got the Ontario Government interested; he also managed to interest that fervid outdoorsman, President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1909, as a result of Preston’s crusading, the United States created Superior National Forest on Continued on page 101


the Minnesota side of the line, and Ontario created Quetico Provincial Park on the Canadian side.

For forty-five years these acts have provided the necessary bare minimum of protection. The United States went on to establish a “roadless area” within the Superior National Forest which kept habitations and holiday resorts to a minimum. Since then it has acquired ninety-five percent of the land and is buying up the rest as fast as possible. Ontario has built no roads in the park and leased no land for permanent dwellings; a game sanctuary is strictly maintained on both sides of the line.

Enough logging lias taken place to provide a horrible example of what could happen, though. Quetico Lake, for example, on the northern edge of Quetico Park, is ringed by a dreary phalanx of drowned trees, killed by the lumbermen’s dam which raised the water level for a log drive years ago, and which they didn’t bother to destroy when rhey were through with it. But the farther you go into the interior of the forest, the more you see of trees which must have been there when the discoverers went by.

These virgin tracts are by no means invulnerable. Timber limits have been let in the very heart of “Hunter’s Island,” itself the heart of the Quetico forest. When I paddled through it last summer with five companions, we saw a gang of timber cruisers at work. We wondered then whether the same kind of logging might lie planned for this coming winter.

This is one of the threats, though by no means the only threat, that the proposed treaty is designed to fend off. Article Three provides for “the establishment and maintenance wherever -possible of park-like conditions, free from logging, flooding, draining, and other forms of exploitation, on all shores of lakes and streams and on all islands.”

Another danger to the park is hydro development. There isn’t a great deal of power going to waste in this relatively flat country, but one recent American project would have dammed enough streams to raise some levels eighty feet. That would have obliterated virtually the whole route of the old voyageurs, and drowned innumerable lakes, islands, waterfalls and rapids.

At the moment, though, probably the most serious threat to the historic and unique character of the QueticoSuperior region is the airplane.

American aircraft have been forbidden, since last July, to fly into the ' roadless area of Minnesota. The effect lias been to prevent vacation resorts in the forest, of which there are several, from expanding; they can’t bring in supplies or customers by air. Not from the United States, that is. Canada does permit the use of aircraft in the park, and the danger—not yet actual, but feared—is that U. S. resorts will be maintained by Canadian planes.

ALTHOUGH the United States Government was willing to sign the treaty, it was and is on the United States side that most of the hostile pressure is exerted. Every step for the preservation of the Superior National Forest has been bitterly fought, and the fight is still going on. Indeed, one reason why American supporters of the International Peace Forest are so anxious to have it sealed by treaty is their fear that a new government or a future change of policy in Washington might

wipe out all the victories they have won. They think an international agreement would be an effective deterrent to any sudden, hasty or thoughtless change.

On the Canadian side this danger has seemed a good deal less imminent, which perhaps is the reason for Canadian apathy on the whole question. Ironically, there seems to be little opposition in Canada to the proposed treaty. Ottawa is in favor of it, but says it is Ontario’s business. Ontario is in favor of it, but says it is a question for the local people in the area. Some

of the local people, at least, don’t seem to have heard about it at all.

Steps have been taken to end this inertia. The President’s Quetico-Superior Committee in the United States has an opposite number in Canada which is still headed, at least nominally, by the Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey. Chambers of Commerce in western Ontario have set up a committee to investigate and report, and this body it is hoped will propose a zoning system much along the lines of the proposed treaty, for the protect ion of the interior wilderness. Several editors, business-

men and community leaders in the district have recently taken an interest in the project. They may lie able to start the long and complicated chain reaction that seems to be necessary to get this little pig over the stile. If they can stir enough local interest to convince the Government of Ontario, which will then give a green light to Ottawa, which will then take the matter up again with Washington, we may yet. save the voyageur route from being logged to the water’s edge, or invaded by Ye Olde Tourist Lodge at every portage. ★