Minnesota’s Superior National Forest

A scene in Superior National Forest, c. 1920. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Logging activity along Lake Superior’s Minnesota north shore between 1870 and 1920 nearly cut the wilderness clean. Some called for portions of the forest to be left untouched, causing lumber companies to threaten to pull out of the region, which at the time would have substantially damaged the local economy by leaving many immigrants unemployed. Christopher Andrews, who had served as a Union general during the Civil War, took up the cause of those who wanted to save part of the forest, organizing what would become Minnesota’s state and national forest systems. As a result, in 1909 thirty-six thousand acres were set aside, creating the Superior National Forest. The Forest has since been expanded to include much of the Arrowhead, from the Pigeon River west to Lake Vermilion, and from the Canadian border to stretches of the North Shore.

The Forest contains 3,886 sites of early human habitation, evidence that it has been populated by humans for over ten thousand years. More recent evidence includes pictographs, rock drawings left behind most likely by Ojibwe artists sometime during the past five hundred years. French trappers known as voyageurs worked the region as early as the 1700s.

During the Great Depression, the projects in the Forest helped create jobs. In 1936 the Duluth News-Tribune reported that fifteen Civilian Conservation Corps camps operated in the Forest, with about two hundred men enrolled in each camp.

Consisting of fir, spruce, aspen, birch, and maple trees, Superior National is the largest forest in the United States outside of Alaska. Trails for hiking, Nordic skiing, biking, horse-back riding, and snowmobiles cover two thousand miles.

The Forest is among the largest nesting spots for bald eagles in the lower forty-eight states, and is also home to an abundance of other wildlife, including loons, osprey, eagles, otters, deer, moose, black bears, Canadian lynx, and the gray wolf. In fact, northern Minnesota has the last population of gray wolves in the lower forty-eight states, with about 350 wolves roaming the Superior National Forest alone—and the International Wolf Center makes its home in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness’s unofficial western gateway of Ely, Minnesota. And, of course, the Forest is also the home of a certain rodent that brought the French (and, subsequently, the industrialized development of the entire region) to western Lake Superior way back in the seventeenth century: the beaver.

Today the northern one-third of the Superior National Forest also contains the B.W.C.A.W., the largest protected wilderness area in the lower forty-eight states.