While growing up in northern Minnesota we spent a lot of time at our grandparent’s house on Mille Lacs Lake, where (as you might expect) fishing was the primary pastime. I was pleased to be able to relive some of those memories while attending the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) North Country Icebreaker on Mille Lacs (Jan. 27-29, 2023), one of over 10,000 lakes in Minnesota.
The “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is actually a land of 11,842 lakes, and that figure counts only those bigger than 10 acres. They are a legacy of the glaciers that retreated from the region about 10,000 years ago. As a result, the state has a significant fraction of the world’s supply of surface-available fresh water; 6 percent of Minnesota’s surface area is water, more than any other state. Mille Lacs is the state’s largest inland lake (132,516 acres), which excludes Lake Superior, and an ideal locale for the Minnesota BHA Rendezvous.
As Outdoor News writer Brian Mozey noted (in the Feb. 8, 2023, issue), the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers chapter’s North Country Icebreaker event in Isle in late January included seminars, conversation, and a message from Land Tawney, national President and CEO. Nearly 170 attended the event, headquartered at McQuoid’s Inn on Lake Mille Lacs. BHA’s January 2013 Backcountry Beat detailed more of the weekend activities/events.
“Our Minnesota BHA chapter hit the ground running in 2023! The … Chapter worked for months to bring together the First Annual North Country Icebreaker. They brought members from all over the Midwest and as far as Montana, Colorado, and California to ice fish, darkhouse spear, and share wild game and camaraderie despite the sub-zero temperatures. But that’s what it’s all about: sharing a phenomenal experience on public (hard)water in the face of adversity, and the Minnesota Chapter embodied that to its core. Attendees left not cold, but burning with that BHA fire to protect and fight for our public lands and waters that will last long after the snow melts.”
My grandparents, Elmer and Agnes Lien, lived on Mille Lacs (on Wigwam Bay), where fishing from the dock, a boat or on the ice was usually on the agenda depending on the season. And as any respectable northern European would, they always had lefse (a traditional soft Norwegian flatbread) and, occasionally, lutefisk handy. Norwegians and Swedes have battled over which country first developed lutefisk, a seriously stinky concoction usually eaten during the Holidays.
Saturday afternoon Greg and Pete Kvale (two-time BHA North American Rendezvous Cookoff champions) set up an elk camp-style “hospitality” tent on the ice, serving up warm drinks and good conversation. A friend from Grand Rapids, Minnesota (where I was raised), Joe Cannella, joined us there. Joe worked for the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA), headquartered in Grand Rapids, for many years and mentioned, with a tinge of astonishment, the age diversity of the Icebreaker crowd (i.e., not all of us were old white guys).
“From the beginning BHA has been an all-encompassing group, appealing to anyone who recreates on public land. It’s a great venue to start bridging gaps and bringing people together to make big differences in the realm of wildlife, conservation and public land,” said BHA collegiate club coordinator Kylie Schumacher. Attend almost any BHA event anywhere and you’ll likely encounter a fairly diverse—certainly in age, and likely other attributes—group.
“The mission of BHA is centered on the notion that no matter the color of your skin, political affiliation, religion, financial standing, gender or sexual identity, we are all entitled to equal access of our public lands and waters,” Land Tawney said during 2020. “It’s critical to our mission, to the future of our society, and to the public lands and public waters that have the power to unite us.”
During Saturday evening at the Icebreaker we experienced (appropriately so) sub-zero temperatures and had a traditional BHA bonfire. “The best ideas come from around a campfire,” Land says. While standing around the fire I got to talkin’ with Land, who brought up the subject of BHA volunteers and why (or how) some of us have been at it for so long (i.e., longevity vs. burnout).
Don’t Burn Out!
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers started around a campfire during March 2004, thanks to seven hunters and anglers, men and women, the “Gang of Seven.” They were inspired by the political activism of Theodore Roosevelt, the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold and the contemporary writings of hunting ethicist and renowned trad bow elk hunter David “Elkheart” Petersen.
I joined BHA in 2005, about a year after the founding campfire, and subsequently served on the North American Board for 8-plus years (1/11/07 to 3/9/15). I also helped found the Minnesota BHA chapter (in 2007)—the third BHA state chapter after Colorado and Alaska (as far as I know)—and served on the board for 11-plus years (1/11/07 to 9/30/18). In Colorado, I started serving on the chapter board during July 2006 and have been at it for over 16 years now.
During the fall of 2013 we held Minnesota BHA’s first annual Rendezvous (Sept. 6-8) in the Chippewa National Forest at Darrell Spencer’s cabin on Third River just south of Dixon Lake. With Darrel’s “Third River Cabin” serving as our base camp, a group of a dozen attendees from around the state spent the weekend duck hunting, fishing, and target shooting.
Our Rendezvous event notice emphasized that: “This will be during Youth Waterfowl Day (September 7) and early Canada goose season (9/1–9/20), so bring your canoe and kids and do some goose/duck hunting.” Saturday evening, we commenced with a group wild game cookout that included fresh duck and Colorado elk.
Fast-forwarding back to January 2023 on Mille Lacs, there was little time to ponder Land’s question, about volunteer longevity, before other conversations intervened, not to mention a bottle of Midnight Forest Bourbon Whiskey making its way around the fire. However, given a bit more time I would have told Land that I’ve been privileged to work with upwards of 100 dedicated, selfless BHA volunteers over the years.
Some came and went due to the inevitable and varied career or personal life changes that generally impact us all at some point, while others simply burnt out. I’ve seen it too many times. Most volunteers are naturally inclined to say “yes” to every request, and they do great work on behalf of our wild public lands, waters and wildlife … for a while.
But too many are overextended and unable to maintain the pace, and then burnout takes them out for good. I’ve yet to see a single burnout casualty return to a leadership position after stepping down. It turns out that burning out leaves a bad aftertaste that doesn’t fade. The lesson: shoot for a slow burn, not a burnout.
Focus on doing one or two things that you truly enjoy based on the time available outside of work and other personal life pursuits. We’d much rather have a volunteer who does a little (predictably) every year, quarter or month and sticks around for a decade or more vs. someone who goes for broke and disappears after just a year or two. As some unknown sage pointed out, “Volunteers aren’t paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.”
Our most important asset is our volunteers. And nearly all conservation-related endeavors are marathons, not sprints. Volunteer longevity and perseverance is key, and we all need to pace ourselves accordingly. For example, I’ve been engaged on the issue of proposed sulfide mines in Minnesota for over 12 years now.
Boundary Waters Sulfide Mines
Among the first issues Minnesota BHA chapter leaders engaged on was proposed sulfide-ore copper mines in northern Minnesota. In a June 30, 2010, op-ed in the Duluth News Tribune we laid out our initial position, which hasn’t changed much, regarding the proposed watershed-ruining sulfide mines.
“Copper-mining operations, sometimes called ‘hard-rock mining’ or ‘sulfide mining,’ have left toxic scars across the country, with acids and sulfides leaching into streams, contaminating rivers and lakes, killing fish and leaving dead zones,” I wrote. “While the mining industry claims new technologies can help avert those kinds of problems here, skeptical sportsmen and others have demanded proof and argue that the short-term extraction of mineral wealth poses a long-term threat to the pristine qualities of an area dependent on outdoor recreation and tourism, not mining, for its future.”
“Backcountry Hunters & Anglers has fought for the permanent protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and its surrounding watershed since the formation of the Minnesota Chapter,” Aaron Hebeisen, BHA chapter coordinator for Minnesota, said in a January 2023 BHA press release. “It was one of our founding principles and continues to be a keystone issue to our members.”
Rightly so, because hardrock mining is the most polluting industry in the United States, with, as its calling card, Superfund sites, polluted waterways, and lakes so toxic ducks and geese die when they land on them. Not long ago, near Butte, Mont., throngs of geese landed in an abandoned sulfide mine pit. Berkeley Pit is a 50 billion-gallon toxic stew that is part of the nation’s largest Superfund site. At least 3,000 geese died. The same result can be expected from any sulfide mine in Minnesota.
“We recognize the importance of mining to Northern Minnesota and that this bill would allow for traditional mining practices to take place, should iron-ore and taconite mining deposits be found here and could continue to be extracted in a responsible manner,” Hebeisen added. “While we celebrate the administrative mineral withdrawal recently announced by the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, we support the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act as the only solution to permanently protect this truly unique and remarkable area.”
Lukas Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, explained in at Jan. 30, 2023, Field & Stream story that sulfide-ore copper mines are known for producing harmful chemical byproducts. “The main culprit of that is called acid mine drainage, which is basically a slurry of sulfuric acid and toxic heavy metals,” Leaf says. Hence, placing a watershed-ruining sulfide-ore mine in northern Minnesota’s BWCAW watershed is not responsible or rationale.
In a Feb. 9, 2023 Trout Unlimited blog post (“Mining moratorium protects native fish – for now”), Corey Fisher explained that in 1969 prominent conservationist Sigurd Olson of Ely, Minn., wrote this about proposed mineral exploration in the Boundary Waters area: “The world needs metals and men need work, but they also must have wilderness and beauty, and in the years to come will need it even more.” Most Minnesotans agree. As detailed in an Oct. 2022 Duluth News Tribune story, “New mines in Northeastern Minnesota have not enjoyed majority support in the state in recent years, with a 2020 Minnesota Public Radio/Star Tribune poll showing 60% of Minnesotans opposing new projects near the Boundary Waters.”
The clean water advocacy group WaterLegacy adds, “Copper-nickel mining in Minnesota would yield 1% or less of copper and nickel and leave behind 99% or more in sulfide mining tailings waste and waste rock. Is this metal worth the waste, contamination of our water, and destruction of our wetlands and forests … Clean water is truly irreplaceable—the source of life itself. Benjamin Franklin’s quote from 1746 still rings true: ‘When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.’”
There Shall Be No Mine Here
In the January 2023 Backcountry Beat Land Tawney summed up the North Country Icebreaker. “I was in Minnesota this past weekend for a brand new event …” he said. “Folks from all over MN, CO, IL, WI, and ND braved the chilly temps for icehouse spearing, raffles, and a wild game cooking competition that sent the winners, Jordan and Constance, to the competition at Rendezvous in March. It has been great to reconnect with old friends and new. The Minnesota chapter has some amazing, dedicated leaders.”
On January 26, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service announced they had finalized an environmental analysis supporting the 20-year mineral withdrawal of 225,504 acres in the Superior National Forest, upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. On January 31, Congresswoman McCollum (D-MN) reintroduced her Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act. BHA strongly supports this legislation which would permanently protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore mining.
In the Winter 2020 Backcountry Journal Land unequivocally laid out BHA’s position on proposed sulfide mining in the Boundary Waters watershed: “There has never been a copper/sulfide mine that hasn’t leached. Never. Right now, the future of the Boundary Waters hangs in the balance … There shall be no mine here … not ever … not on BHA’s watch.”
“It was apropos that we were able to celebrate the 20-year mining moratorium on the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area in Minnesota that happened earlier in the week,” Land added (in the January 2023 Backcountry Beat). “The energy in the room was palpable and bodes well for other chapter events to come. People are our currency, and this event and others stoke the fire!”
Additional Information/Related Resources
-Photos: Minnesota BHA North Country Icebreaker (Jan. 27-29, 2023).
-Photos: Minnesota BHA First Annual Rendezvous (Sept. 6-8, 2013).
-Grandpa Elmer Lien Fishing Photos from Mille Lacs Lake and other north country locales.
-David A. Lien. “Local View: Fighting proposed mines spans more than a decade—of winning.” Duluth News Tribune: 2/20/23.
-Brian Mozey. “Minnesota Backcountry Hunters and Anglers ‘Icebreaker’ focuses on ’23 goals.” Outdoor News: 2/8/23.
-Brian Mozey. “Red Wing couple headed to Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ national cookoff.” Outdoor News: 2/1/23.
-Caitlin Thompson. “Minnesota BHA Rendezvous Chippewa National Forest (6–8 Sept., 2013).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 9/12/13.
-Katie McKalip. “Reintroduction of Bill for Permanent Protection of Boundary Waters Met With Support from Sportsmen’s Organizations.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/31/23.
-Press Release. “Boundary Waters Legislation Reintroduced in the 118th Congress.” Sportsmen For The Boundary Waters: 1/31/23.
-The White House. “WHAT THEY ARE SAYING: President Biden Protects Lands and Waters.” News Updates: 1/31/23.
-David A. Lien. “Boundary Waters Ruffed Grouse & Sulfide-Ore Mines Don’t Mix.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/9/23.
-Minnesota BHA Report: 100-Plus Reasons To Protect Northern Minnesota’s Waterways, Watersheds and Wildlife From Proposed Sulfide-Ore Mining.
-Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Top 10 Reasons To Stop Twin Metal’s Sulfide Mining Proposal (Help Protect Northern Minnesota’s Waterways, Watersheds and Wildlife From Twin Metal’s Proposed Sulfide-Ore Mine).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/18/18.
-David “Elkheart” Petersen (founder of the first BHA state chapter, in Colorado, and a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) books. Also see his “On the Wild Edge” documentary at: https://youtu.be/-IE58L4bqEA
-“You don’t inspire volunteers to action by decree from on high. Rather, you give them minimal direction and maximum freedom to do their own thing, within the realm of the group’s charter.” –David “Elkheart” Petersen
-David A. Lien. “Guest opinion: Selling off our public lands is a bad idea that won’t die.” VailDaily: 1/29/23.
-David A. Lien. “The Ghost Bulls of Colorado.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/18/23.
 Reid Forgrave. “In Northern Minnesota, Two Economies Square Off: Mining vs. Wilderness.” The New York Times: 10/12/17.
 Nik Dimich. “Fishing and the ‘Grand Rapids Experience.’” Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review: 5/30/14.
 Kyle Farris. “Lutefisk: Love it or loathe it.” Duluth News Tribune: 12/3/14.
 Joe Canella. “Bringing Up Girls As Hunters.” Whitetales: Summer 2019.
 Ben Long. “Changing of the Guard.” Backcountry Journal: Spring 2015, p. 4.
 David A. Lien. “Darrell Spencer Helps Keep Minnesota Wild.” Backcountry Journal: Fall 2008, p. 3.
 Highpointers Club. Apex to Zenith: 4th Quarter 2012, p. 17.
 Matt Volz. “Brimming Berkeley Pit nears critical level after bird deaths.” Great Falls Tribune: 1/23/17.
 Travis Hall. “Federal Government Bans Mining Upstream of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: The Biden Administration's Interior Department has withdrawn more than 200,000 acres of public land in northeastern Minnesota from all federal mine leasing.” Field &Stream: 1/30/23.
 Janet Keough, WaterLegacy Board President. “What are Minnesota’s waters and lands worth to you this year?” WaterLegacy: 12/20/22
 Land Tawney, BHA President and CEO. “Action Matters!” Backcountry Beat: January 2023.
 Land Tawney, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers President and CEO. “The Way of the Wilderness.” Backcountry Journal: Winter 2020, p. 3.
 Land Tawney, BHA President and CEO. “Action Matters!” Backcountry Beat: January 2023.