Trouble in the Boundary Waters

They call the pristine wilderness area near Ely, in northern Minnesota, "the end of the road." And every year, three quarters of a million nature lovers come through Ely to vacation in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a federally protected expanse of woods and waterways that stretches for 1.2 million acres along the Canadian border. But in August, dozens of campers in this peaceful preserve were terrorized by six drunken, gun-wielding men from Ely, who used pistols and an AK-47 to fire off 60 rounds while speeding by in motorboats, according to a 24-page criminal complaint against the men. Then they went ashore to threaten campers with rape and murder, according to the complaint. A Chicago man told authorities that he and his family hid in the woods and feared for their lives, while the men ransacked their campsite. Another family reported seeing the men swim naked in nearby Basswood Lake. But it was what the men allegedly shouted during their spree that was most telling: "F---ing tourists … get the hell off our f---ing property" and "go home f---ing enox tree-huggers." Enox, apparently, is local slang for "environmentally obnoxious."

Here in the north woods of Minnesota, this ugly incident has laid bare a simmering tension between natives and naturalists. The Boundary Waters, America's most popular wilderness area, have been protected territory since 1926; as the federal government set aside more and more land—and designated the Boundary Waters as part of the national wilderness system in the 1960s—it began buying up property, using eminent domain at times to kick the locals out of their lakeside cabins and resorts. In 1978, the Feds curtailed mining and logging activity in the area and cracked down hard on the gas-powered outdoor play favored by many locals—motorboats, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles. So while the green tourist dollars have saved this once dying mining town, resentment festered at what many locals saw as federal encroachment. Organizations like the 4,000-member Conservationists With Common Sense sprung up to fight the Feds and decry, as it does on its Web site: "Northern Minnesota's way of life & culture [is] under ATTACK!" Campers have been known to go into the Boundary Waters with motors, and without permits—but locals say the defiance has not manifested itself in such a threatening fashion before. "This was an isolated incident, stupidity," says Nancy McReady, president of Conservationists with Common Sense, "It's not how people in Ely behave. It's not the beginning of anything."

But some worry that decades of resentment toward the nature lovers and their protected property helped breed the group now known as the "Ely Six." "The years of ignorant vituperation have borne bitter fruit," wrote Bob Tammen in a letter to the Ely Timberjay newspaper. He blamed local politicians, editorial page writers and so-called conservationists for enabling these young men to "develop such belligerent attitudes."

Five of the men arrested in the incident were born after the federal government imposed restrictions on motoring in the wilderness area. And the sixth man, bread-truck driver Barney Lakner, 37, was cited in 2004 for running roughshod through the Boundary Waters wilderness on a snowmobile. All six, including a 16-year-old boy, appeared in court Monday to face 79 state charges. The men have not yet entered pleas; their next court appearance is Nov 5. They may also face felony counts and charges from federal and Canadian authorities for veering into the Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park during their violent spree. (Following Monday's hearing, Richard Holmstrom, attorney for one of the men—Travis John Erzar, 20—told a Duluth News Tribune reporter that his client played only a minor part  in the incident. "If anybody did anything wrong, Travis was the least involved of any of the people ... He was along for the ride." Gordon Pineo, attorney for Barney Lakner, the oldest defendant, told NEWSWEEK "there's nothing I can say at this point in time.") Dina Hill, a lifelong Ely resident and Lakner's mother-in-law, worries about how this will impact her daughter and their children. "We have to hope for the best. It could just go away or it could be a medium punishment or full force," she says. "You just shake your head 'cause these are all good kids. It was just stupidity. They were just showing off."

But was it just youthful indiscretion or a troubling community character flaw? And how might it hurt the local tourist trade? That's the talk of the town all over Ely. "It's all anyone is talking about," says Marcy Gotchnik. "I feel, feel, feel, for their mothers. Imagine, worrying about what their punishment will be and then knowing that everyone in town is worried about whether the town will be hurt by this." Fearing fallout on the fragile local economy, the Timberjay encouraged locals not to sympathize with the accused. "While there has long been a tendency in our area to paint youthful rebels who run afoul of the Boundary Waters regulations as folk heroes, this is a different situation entirely," the newspaper said in an editorial this week. "Certainly, people in the community will disagree about the merits of the federal management of the Boundary Waters, but we can all agree that terrorizing visitors is no way to express such disagreements."

But those disagreements run deep and run like a "fault line" through this north woods community of 3,700 residents, says Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the local paper. After the iron ore mines closed in the 1960s, Ely built a thriving economy based almost entirely on tourism. But the natural splendor of the Boundary Waters attracted a new kind of local resident—greens who prefer a no-octane approach to enjoying the natural habitat. They are frequently at odds with long-timers who have fought the Boundary Waters' restrictions on motors. "As more environmentalists come to town," says Helmberger, "there's growing animosity."

And now while the motorized conservationists distance themselves from the Ely Six, they still stand firm in their fight against the federal limitations on the land they once saw as their own. "It's the local people who made the Boundary Waters what it is today," says McReady of Conservationists with Common Sense. "They gave up a lot—resorts, cabins. [The rules were] supposed to allow the use of motorized vehicles, including motorboats and snowmobiles. People gave up their land knowing that their way of life would continue. Then in 1978 there were further restrictions. We lost a lot."

Those grievances about a lost way of life have been passed on from generation to generation in Ely. "Everyone hears those complaints," says Nancy Piragis, who owns an outfitting business. "People grow up around that." But now those attitudes, twisted as they were by the alleged incident, threaten to spoil the very eco-system Ely depends on for survival. "People aren't anti-tourist," says Helmberger. "It's much more anti-environmental. But maybe some of the Ely Six weren't sophisticated enough to recognize that distinction." That distinction is central to the struggle for the soul of Ely—and everywhere else environmentalists and sportsmen tussle over the great outdoors.