In the 1890s, the imagination of America, fueled by growth and prosperity, turned to protection of its forests and waters. New York state set aside the Adirondacks to provide drinking water for New York City. The mountains of Yosemite became the first national park, to the frustration of the Native Americans living there, who saw the hands off policy as a breach in our human responsibility to the environment.
It was Jacob Brower (left) who fought for protection of the Mississippi Headwaters, both to preserve a pure source for drinking water for downstream cities and to retain the forests and lakes. His nemesis was Thomas Walker (right), the businessman who logged his way across the Midwest, leaving his mark in northern Minnesota, through place names and endowments, and ending his logging career in the forests of northern California.
Brower’s plan for a park around the headwaters of the Mississippi River was popular, and even the lumberman agreed, provided they could harvest before the park was named. Brower was fierce about protecting the park before the forests were harvested; as the legislature convened to vote, Brower stood outside the chamber, pleading his case to each individual legislator. Itasca State Park became the nation’s first park, but it was a park in name only, protecting harvested lands, not standing forests.
Today, research scientists at the University of Minnesota say that the harvests of 100 years ago have left a scar that can be read in the streams and rivers of the state. We don’t know what we’ve lost. But we do know that Jacob Brower fought to keep it for us.