How The Environment Has Shaped the State

From Sustenance to Leisure on Minnesota Land

Expert Essay: Associate professor of history Michael J. Lansing, published in Environmental History as well as Ethics, Place, and Environment, highlights the many ways people have made use of Minnesota's flora and fauna over time and reviews the state's more recent efforts at conservation.

Ca. 1910 image of Ernest Oberholtzer on a canoe trip in the Quetico–Superior region.

Ernest Oberholtzer canoe trip into Canada

Ca. 1910 image of Ernest Oberholtzer on a canoe trip in the Quetico–Superior region.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Ernest Oberholtzer documented flood damage associated with existing Rainy Lake dams in an attempt to prevent Edward Backus from constructing more dams, causing additional damage. This image documents damage related to a storage dam on Namakan Lake.

Destruction of shoreline timber caused by a storage dam on Namakan Lake, west of Quetico Park

In the 1920s and 1930s, Ernest Oberholtzer documented flood damage associated with existing Rainy Lake dams in an attempt to prevent Edward Backus from constructing more dams, causing additional damage. This image documents damage related to a storage dam on Namakan Lake.

1933 image of Ernest Oberholtzer and Sewell Tyng representing the Quetico–Superior Council and defending the newly passed regulations of the Shipstead–Nolan Act and the Rainy Lake watershed in front of an international commission.

Ernest Oberholtzer and Sewell Tyng

1933 image of Ernest Oberholtzer and Sewell Tyng representing the Quetico–Superior Council and defending the newly passed regulations of the Shipstead–Nolan Act and the Rainy Lake watershed in front of an international commission.

Ca. 1942 image of Ernest Oberholtzer at Mallard Island.

Ernest Oberholtzer

Ca. 1942 image of Ernest Oberholtzer at Mallard Island.

Hand-drawn 1920s map of the Rainy Lake watershed in both Minnesota and Ontario, possibly drawn by Ernest Oberholtzer, showing the 14,500 square miles that would have been effected by Edward Backus’ proposed dams. Used with the permission of the Oberholtzer Foundation.

Map of Rainy Lake watershed and environs

Hand-drawn 1920s map of the Rainy Lake watershed in both Minnesota and Ontario, possibly drawn by Ernest Oberholtzer, showing the 14,500 square miles that would have been effected by Edward Backus’ proposed dams. Used with the permission of the Oberholtzer Foundation.

Ernest Oberholtzer, 1940.

Ernest Oberholtzer

Ernest Oberholtzer, 1940.

Oberholtzer, Ernest (1884–1977)

Ernest Oberholtzer first paddled the lakes of the Rainy Lake watershed in 1909. Starting in the 1920s, he lived on Rainy Lake’s Mallard Island and was a prominent conservationist. He led the campaign for legislation to protect the watershed, including parts of what would become Voyagerus National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Commercialization of Taconite

Though taconite was identified as an iron-bearing rock on the Iron Ranges of northern Minnesota long before the 1950s, it wasn’t until then that it was profitably extracted, processed, and shipped to steel mills on the Great Lakes. As natural ore reserves were diminished, taconite became an alternative source of iron that allowed the Iron Range to continue mining operations in a changing global economy.

Fisherman in Whitewater State Park, ca. 1917. Original caption: “Where the Finy [sic] Tribe Abound.” From The Paradise of Minnesota: The Proposed Whitewater State Park (L. A. Warming, 1917).

Fisherman in Whitewater State Park

Fisherman in Whitewater State Park, ca. 1917. Original caption: “Where the Finy [sic] Tribe Abound.” From The Paradise of Minnesota: The Proposed Whitewater State Park (L. A. Warming, comp., 1917). Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as F612.W742 W37 1917.

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