Flashback Friday: President Nixon authorized Voyageurs National Park 49 years ago

Flashback Friday: President Nixon authorized Voyageurs National Park 49 years ago Photo: National Park Service

Updated: January 10, 2020 01:54 PM

Minnesota's Arrowhead region boasts bountiful natural beauty. Vast swaths of the northern wilderness fall under federal protection, including the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

But only one area has the distinction of being a national park.


On Jan. 8, 1971, President Richard Nixon approved legislation to create Voyageurs National Park, but it would take another four years before the National Park Service could acquire all the land necessary to establish the park.

Voyageurs National Park was created to preserve the nature and culture of the Boundary Waters, which was an instrumental region for expanding trade access beyond the Great Lakes. Starting with the French in the 1600s, North American settlers would take boats through the Boundary Waters to trade with the Ojibwe and Dakota people, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. The fur trade was strong in the region for more than two centuries.

The traders who paddled their canoes through the region were called voyageurs, French for "travelers." According to the MHS, the voyageurs would exchange goods for furs at rendezvous points and take the furs to big cities for shipment to the East Coast.

The introduction to the bill Nixon signed reads:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the purpose of this Act is to preserve, for the inspiration and enjoyment of present and future generations, the outstanding scenery, geological conditions and waterway system which constituted a part of the historic route of the Voyageurs who contributed significantly to the opening of the Northwestern United States.

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The push to create a national park along the Boundary Waters started 25 years before the National Park Service was even founded. According to the NPS, the Minnesota State Legislature passed a resolution in 1891 requesting the president establish a national park stretching from Crane Lake to Lake of the Woods — an area encompassing about half of the state's northernmost border.

It wasn't until 1959 that the federal government would start scouting out the area's potential as a national park. Through the early 1960s, the NPS did further studies and surveys to evaluate the land, and in 1964 the first official proposal was put forward to establish Voyageurs National Park.

According to the NPS, early proposals only called for the park to be created on the land bordering Rainy Lake and Kabetogama Lake — basically the Kabetogama Peninsula and the southern shore of Kabetogama Lake. Eventually the park boundaries were expanded to the east to include land between Namakan Lake and Crane Lake.

In April 1969, U.S. Rep. John Blatnik, D-Minnesota, introduced legislation to create Voyageurs National Park. It passed the House of Representatives on Dec. 4, 1970, and the Senate approved the proposal on Dec. 22, 1970, after adding amendments. 

The law Nixon signed on Jan. 8, 1971, opened the door for the U.S. Department of the Interior to begin acquisition of parklands through donations, purchase or exchange. That process took four years, and the park finally opened on April 8, 1975.

The National Park Service says the best way to enjoy the park is to leave your car behind and travel about on a watercraft. Nearly 240,000 visitors came to Voyageurs National Park in 2018, and a previous report estimates the park has an economic impact of about $24 million a year.

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Kyle Brown

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