The University of Chicago Magazine
Gone fishing: Controversy surrounds Voyageurs' provisions for motorized recreations like boating, snowmobiling, even floatplaning-activities that some worry may be affecting the park's wildlife. (Photos courtesy of Voyageurs National Park.)
When West arrived in International Falls two years ago as Voyageurs' new superintendent, she was, in the words of one National Park Service insider, "a surprise appointment." In fact, she had never even been to Voyageurs when she applied for its top job. She soon became well acquainted not only with the park, but also with its most ardent critics. "I knew how contentious some issues were with the park," she says. "I just thought that my charm would overwhelm everybody. And, boy, was I wrong!"Only six weeks after coming to Voyageurs, West found herself testifying at congressional-subcommittee hearings in International Falls. Earlier that year, Representative James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) had introduced laws to prevent the Park Service from enforcing the Endangered Species Act within the park, to require the park to build 400 houseboat mooring sites (the park had only 50 at the time), and--most ominously, in West's view--to establish a management council that would have stripped most of Voyageurs' control from the Park Service.
The hearings took place one muggy August day in the packed high-school gym. Supporters on both sides shouted and waved signs. (One advocate of increased motorboat access to the park brandished a banner proclaiming, "We are `pork and beaners,' not L.L. Beaners.") At times onlookers broke into jeers, much to the consternation of the assembled legislators, who included both of the state's U.S. senators, as well as Representative James V. Hansen (R-Utah), chair of the House subcommittee on national parks, forests, and lands.When it was her turn to speak, West ditched her prepared remarks and addressed the audience plainly. "What we are trying to do is to provide a balanced spectrum of recreational opportunities," she told the crowd, "so that one use does not dominate to the exclusion of others; so that people who come to national parks to seek silence, to seek solitude, to seek the kinds of northern Minnesota experiences that we have all had here can do that; and so that people who want to fish and people who want to recreate on snow machines can do that as well." Her conciliatory remarks eventually had both critics and supporters cheering. But the controversy surrounding Voyageurs has stubbornly continued to this day, with federal mediation underway just to get opponents talking with each other.
"We're competing with people's fleeting images of the past," West comments on the passions her park evokes. "They remember undisturbed beer parties on an island, but the fact is it wouldn't have been like it used to be even if it wasn't a park. It was going to be subdivided if it hadn't been made a park. It was going to be somebody's cabin."
Reflecting on that first confrontation and those that have followed, West takes comfort in how she's been accepted by much of the surrounding community, recalling the woman who approached her in the grocery store, patted her hand, and said, "Barb, you're doing the right thing." Then again, making tough decisions and facing sometimes personal repercussions--like the letter to a local newspaper branding her a liar--is a part of the job that won't go away. She's not embarrassed that she takes the responsibility of protecting the park personally. "I know that 50 years from now, people will say `Yessir, this park is special,'" she declares. "It's hard to get here, but it's worth it when you do."
The streak of independence West has demonstrated at Voyageurs was apparent at an early age. As the daughter of an Air Force officer, she traveled widely, but the three years she spent on a base outside Tokyo were the most memorable. "I'd immediately change my allowance into yen and go into Tokyo and bum around."
This early fascination with Japanese culture stayed with her through college. Drawn to the U of C as one of the few schools offering a comprehensive Japanese program, West majored in Far Eastern Languages with a concentration in early modern Japanese political philosophy. Withdrawing for two quarters to pursue studies at the Tokyo Japanese Language Center, she began to notice references to "levels of politeness," a cultural template she found puzzling. When she realized "that it meant a woman could never talk to a man as an equal--ever--I was so pissed that I said, `That's it.' There was no way I was ever going to be taken seriously as a person, so I finished the degree and switched gears."
Offered a fellowship to the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, she moved to Austin in 1971 and quickly became involved in local Democratic politics, working with Mexican Americans at the Community Council of Southwest Texas and on several political campaigns in Austin.
At the LBJ School, she learned about the structure and function of government, "what you do to get legislation passed and to build coalitions." With characteristic self-confidence, she thought she might pursue a diplomatic career and took the State Department exam several times, twice making it to the interview stage, but no further. Years later West's husband would ask, "What made you think that you could be subtle and tactful?" As she now agrees, "It was not a good fit."
Instead, after a brief stint in Washington at the National Commission on Water Quality, she headed west to New Mexico-as the only non-Navajo at the Shiprock Research Center, located on the Navajo Reservation. In a job that combined research, political organizing, and policy analysis, she worked on a doomed proposal for a coal-gasification plant to be built south of Shiprock. In 1977, after Jimmy Carter's election, West's Democratic connections got her a job in Washington at the newly established Office of Surface Mining, again dealing with mining programs on Indian lands. Eventually she became special assistant to the assistant secretary for Indian affairs.
With Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, West lost her Washington job. Through a friend, she ended up with the National Park Service's geological-resources division in Denver. In 1979, she had met Darrell Knuffke, deputy secretary of the interior in the Carter administration and a longtime official with the Wilderness Society. They married in 1984 and have had a commuter marriage for long stretches since; Knuffke is presently outreach director for the Wilderness Society, based in Washington, D.C.While in Denver, West took advantage of the terrain: At lunch each day, she rode her bike 15-20 miles. "Oh, I rode the Rockies, I pedaled the peaks," West says, nonchalantly noting that her land speed record is 57 m.p.h. "The way I figure it," she explains, "why crash at 40 miles per hour? You may as well go out at terminal velocity."
Despite the thrilling bike rides, West eventually grew tired of delegating park policy from a distant office and decided she wanted the hands-on experience of being a park superintendent. With no field experience, however, her chances seemed remote. So in 1992 she arranged for a year-long detail in the Grand Canyon's resources-management division: writing environmental assessments, revising the backcountry management plan, assisting with the budget. And living the not altogether glamorous life of a park ranger. One hardship, she says, was wearing the regulation uniform: "They're so unflattering." Then there was the housing shortage that found her bunking for a year in a hospital room in the park's clinic.
With Bill Clinton's 1992 election, a new patrol arrived at the Interior Department. By May 1993, the new assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife and parks had tapped West to be one of his special assistants. Returning to Washington, she plunged into a 20-month, 13-agency effort to devise a restoration plan for the Florida Everglades. In the process, West succeeded in antagonizing the Miccosukee Indians to the point that the tribe filed suit against her twice--both as a government official and as a private citizen. The Miccosukee, West explains, had long occupied a 40-acre area of the Biscayne Bay National Park under a special-use permit granted in the 1960s, and felt that they should have a bigger say. Their wishes for the land clashed with the Everglades restoration plan. "They wanted us to put more water into their part of the Everglades," West says, "We wouldn't do it, so they sued."
While the controversies surrounding her job were good training for a future park superintendent, life inside the civilized Beltway had its drawbacks. For one thing, wild mountain-bike rides were no longer a daily option. In their place she took up ice hockey. At Chicago, she'd shared a house with some hockey fans from New Hampshire, spending "a lot of Friday and Saturday nights watching the Blackhawks." She asked for skates for Christmas and joined a beginner's team for women. Soon she was one of two women playing--her position is left defense--in a suburban men's hockey league. Now her husband calls her Boom-Boom, and she's coach of the girls' high-school hockey team in International Falls, where talent on the ice is a respected skill. The team, she reports, has a losing, but improving, record. "The scores have gotten much less lopsided."
In winter, the giant thermometer in International Falls' Smokey Bear Park records impressive minuses (to -70º F and beyond). West's beloved sea kayak gets stowed away until "ice-out," and she's reduced to watching kayaking videos. This past February did provide an unexpected treat, when she was asked to lead the annual governor's snowmobile ride from International Falls to Crane Lake. "They said they'd provide the snowmobile suit," West says, "and I told them I wanted a white leather outfit like one Elvis would have worn."
But Barbara West, though she champions her park every chance she gets, still isn't everybody's local hero. The latest issue heating up the local ice concerns snowmobiles, pitting riders who want unlimited motorized access to Voyageurs against those, like West, who advocate keeping some areas free from motorized intrusion.
When the park was established, generous allowance was made for motorized uses--boating, snowmobiling, even floatplaning--recreational activities that large numbers of northern Minnesotans consider virtual birthrights. Park employees routinely mark some 70 miles of snowmobile trail on frozen lake surfaces, while other Voyageurs trails provide access to 70,000 acres. But park managers also have a mandate to preserve and protect resources, including wildlife. So, in November 1996, when West proposed closing 11 lake bays totaling 4,393 acres to snowmobile use to protect the park's small population of Eastern timber wolves, a new conflagration ignited.
Admittedly, West's timing was poor: just after the presidential election, and only two days before the opening of deer-hunting season. Although she also announced the dates for two public meetings to discuss the proposal, both were scheduled during deer season, which up north is akin to the most sacred of religious rites. "Four days' notice on the day after the elections and you're saying the Park Service doesn't play games with us?!" said one disgruntled park neighbor. "It salts the well."
"Under Park Service regulations," counters West, "I could have closed the areas with a stroke of the pen, but we chose to make it a proposal so people would have a comment period. The area involved covers 2 percent of the park, or 5.5 percent of the area open to snowmobiles."
Park research has not shown that exposure to snowmobiles harms wolves, West allows. "But," a park report states, "the fact that wolves consistently avoid snowmobiles indicates it is prudent to close some important wolf-foraging areas to winter use until a better understanding of wolf-snowmobile interactions can be determined."
Heeding her snowmobile-riding critics, West agreed to hold a third meeting for public comment after the close of deer season. "People didn't get as much notice as they ought to have," she acknowledges. Her willingness to admit the mistake--though it didn't change her decision to close off the disputed access--garnered a laudatory editorial in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. To West, after the initial firestorm, that editorial felt like "beatification."
Midway through winter, West returned from another long drive to Duluth where she attended another arduous mediation session (studying Finnish language tapes along the way). The parties are close to an agreement, she reports optimistically, but the last two items remain bones of contention. Not surprisingly, they involve motors: specifically, a proposal to ban use of all personal watercraft (jet skis) in the park and the length of time the one land-based snowmobile trail can be used. A recent letter to the local newspaper shows that feelings still run high. It reads in part: "We assume that Barbara West did not come to International Falls with the premeditated and deliberate intention of ruining the local economy and stealing our heritage."
West's husband responds with good humor: "Well, at least they're giving you the benefit of the doubt," he cracks. And West is settling in. "There really isn't anyplace else I'd rather be at this time," she says. "I'll tell you this: I'm not bored."
The author of this piece, Debra Shore, is a freelance writer in Chicago who often writes on environmental issues.
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