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The American Indian Quarterly 26.3 (2002) 378-392

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When Indigenous Rights and Wilderness Collide
Prosecution of Native Americans for Using Motors in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area

Eric Freedman

By designating wilderness protection on federal public lands, Congress expressed its intent to minimize human disruption of sensitive habitats. It delegated authority to agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service to develop and implement rules to carry out that intent. However, wilderness designations and the regulations that enforce them can conflict with preexisting property rights and claims, including those of Native Americans who have treaty-based and traditional tribal rights. The ensuing conflicts may pit Native Americans against environmentalists and recreational users, while placing public lands managers in the middle as they attempt to enforce the laws and satisfy the often competing demands of multiple constituencies.

When four members of the Bois Forte band of Chippewa decided to fight criminal charges based on their admitted use of motorized vehicles in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), their defense in U.S. v. Gotchnik represented such a clash between Indigenous traditions and tribal rights on one side and federal environmental protection mandates on the other that it became the first fully litigated case involving treaty rights within a designated federal wilderness.

Beyond the handful of individuals directly involved and their tribe, the criminal litigation reflects a divide between those who seek to exercise treaty-based property rights and those who oppose any exemptions or exceptions to protective wilderness designations. In such situations, that divide may potentially split Native American groups and environmentalists, who are often allies in "green" litigation.

The principal stakeholders in this type of dispute are tribes with traditional claims to land now encompassed by designated wildernesses, environmentalists, recreational users of public lands, the federal government—and by the inherent nature of litigation—judges (Ruckel 1999; Powers 2000). The resolution of conflicts between Indigenous rights and environmental laws has wide policy and legal ramifications for how agencies manage wilderness areas and [End Page 378] how they balance competing demands; the degree of legal recognition bestowed on historical and treaty rights of Indigenous peoples; legislative proposals to expand or alter the wilderness system and how it is used; how the public values and uses wilderness areas; and how judges determine or refine public policy.

At a time of strengthened assertions of Native American rights and, simultaneously, growing concern among environmentalists about the willingness of the federal government to protect public lands, this article analyzes a key criminal case in which treaty rights and wilderness protection laws collide. It traces the litigation and discusses how the conflict and its resolution affect tribal use of public lands for subsistence purposes ostensibly guaranteed by treaty. The case also suggests that the judicial system may be an imperfect mechanism to resolve such conflicts, which otherwise may be settled through compromise and negotiation.

The Setting

The BWCAW stretches over more than 1.1 million acres of northern Minnesota's Superior National Forest. The largest wilderness east of the Rocky Mountains, it began in 1938 as the Superior Roadless Primitive Area and is now perhaps the best-known unit in the federal wilderness system. The Superior National Forest Web site notes "that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has changed little since the glaciers melted. With over 1,500 miles of canoe routes, nearly 2,200 designated campsites and more than 1,000 lakes and streams waiting, the BWCAW draws thousands of visitors each year" (Superior 2003). Existing regulations include restrictions on motors and mechanized travel, permit requirements, campfires, and designated entry points (Superior 2003; Freedman 1995).

Wilderness designations inherently require a balancing of competing interests, some easily identifiable and others much harder to calculate. As the Superior National Forest Web site states, "We recognize that human resource use in the Superior for both economic and recreational purposes should be balanced with consideration for the land and its non-human inhabitants" (Superior 2003).

The use of motors, including...


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