Minnesotans For Sustainability


Sustainable:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.




Sundown, Ogishkemuncie Lake, July 2002.

Congressman Bruce Vento:

Friend of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

Kevin Proescholdt

Congressman Bruce Vento died at his St. Paul home on October 10th after a valiant fight with a rare form of lung cancer. He was the leading expert on parks and public lands in the entire Congress, a champion for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and my good friend.

Bruce had contracted malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. He announced in early February that he would not seek a 13th term in Congress and embarked on an aggressive series of treatments to fight the disease. Surgeons first removed one of his lungs, and Bruce then went through chemotherapy and later radiation treatments. The prognosis was guardedly optimistic at that point, and his doctors could find no evidence of cancer after the treatments. At mid-September, however, Bruce was unable to attend a large dinner honoring him due to fluid build-up on his remaining lung. When the doctors treated him for this fluid, they discovered that the cancer had recurred in this lung.

Bruce had a special commitment to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and maintained a special relationship with the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness during his entire 24-year career in Congress. Bruce had a strong commitment to the environment long before he reached Congress, of course, coming from his childhood visits to the St. Croix River, through his career as a junior high science teacher, and from his six years in the Minnesota Legislature.

As a freshman Member of Congress in 1977, Bruce co-sponsored the Fraser Bill (named for Rep. Don Fraser of Minnesota), legislation that would have granted the BWCA full wilderness status. This in itself was not an entirely risk-free move on Bruce's part, because another Member from Minnesota, Jim Oberstar (in whose district the BWCA was located), had his own competing bill that would have removed about 400,000 acres from the BWCA as wilderness. But Bruce believed strongly in granting the BWCA the protection he knew it so richly deserved.

As the only Minnesotan on the House Interior Committee, Subcommittee Chair Rep. Phil Burton (D-CA) drafted Bruce to chair the stormy subcommittee field hearings on the Boundary Waters in St. Paul and Ely in July of 1977. He did so with cool determination, despite the massed logging trucks outside the Ely auditorium. Sigurd Olson and Bud Heinselman were hung in effigy outside, and Bruce himself was angrily attacked by one witness in her testimony. Bruce helped craft the subcommittee bill (the Burton/Vento Bill) that became the legislative vehicle to save the BWCA from logging, mining, snowmobiles, and motorboats.

At many points during his first term in 1977-1978, Bruce faced challenges with the huge Boundary Waters fight that showed the steely resolve of his character and his commitment to save this precious wilderness for future generations. At one point, for example, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill heavily pressured Bruce to compromise on the BWCA because the Speaker didn't like to see Democrats fighting in public. The Speaker is someone who can make or break a Congressional career, particularly a first-term freshman like Bruce was at the time.

But Bruce refused to cave in under pressure and took on even greater leadership to pass what became the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act. In the final hours of that Congress, when we were all trying to get the Boundary Waters bill to the floor before adjournment, it was an exasperated O'Neill who said, "Vento has been camping on my doorstep for two days. Tell him I'm going to get that goddamned bill out for him."

Bruce maintained a particular affection for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness throughout his entire career. He nearly always attended the Friends annual meetings, a commitment almost unheard of for a busy Member of Congress. Bruce often spoke at these and other Friends events, and we looked forward to seeing this special friend and the inspiration and encouragement he always gave.

When the Boundary Waters was again under attack in Congress by Sen. Grams and Rep. Oberstar from 1995-98, it was Bruce who once again championed protection for the area. In a 1997 visit to Trout Portage, the motor advocates had prepared an enormously heavy motorboat with three outboards for the Congressional delegation to try to push across the trail on portage wheels.

The motor fans were sure that the delegation would fail. But they didn't count on a strong and determined Bruce, who pushed the heavy boat over the portage almost single-handedly. Bruce later joked that he thought Rep. Chenoweth, Grams, and Oberstar "were dragging their feet to slow me down!"

Over the years, Bruce became a special friend to me. Always friendly, always willing to take a few minutes to chat even on his busiest days in Washington, Bruce continued as my teacher, my mentor, my champion, my friend. I'll miss him deeply, but I'm also deeply grateful that the incredible natural legacy he leaves behind will benefit not only my girls (who knew and liked Bruce, too) but generations yet to come. Thank you, Bruce!

MFS note: Bruce will always be fondly remembered. Thank you Kevin! /MFS

Congressman Bruce Vento (left) with Kevin Proescholdt.

Courtesy of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
BWCA Wilderness News, Autumn 2000.
Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness
401 North Third Street, Suite 290
Minneapolis, MN 55401-1475
Please visit the Friends website: < http://www.friends-bwca.org >.


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