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A Century Later, Arthur Carhart's Recreation Plan for the Superior National Forest Lives On

Nov 30, 2022 08:45AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: First rapids on Kawishiwi River above the forks of the stream - Superior National Forest

From the US Forest Service - Superior National Forest - November 29, 2022

On November 8, 1922, Regional Forester A.S. Peck approved a recreation plan for the Superior National Forest drafted and submitted in May 1922 by Arthur Carhart (1892-1978), a young landscape architect from Iowa that worked for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) from 1919-1923. 

While Carhart’s career with the USFS was short, his recommendations for recreation management on the Superior provided foundational guidance for the numerous interconnected waterways that form the core of the now Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Carhart’s plan, which highlighted the significant potential of the area for canoe-based recreation, was based on observations gathered during two, 21-day canoe trips on the Superior, completed in July-August 1919 and May-June 1921 with Forest Guard Matt Soderback. In his plan, Carhart incisively noted that the Superior, “as a canoe country, would have few, if any competitors” (p.45).

“The Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have unique and complex land management histories. It is a landscape that is loved and enjoyed by many, and Carhart’s plan helped shape the decision to designate a couple core areas of the Superior for canoe travel in 1926. He recommended preserving a belt of timber along lakes well suited for boat and canoe travel…. eight years later Congress would make that law in the Shipsted-Nolan Act. Carhart’s trip on the Superior took place only 10 years after the Forest was proclaimed, when the agency was developing current and future management plans for future recreational use. When Carhart visited the Superior, there were few roads in the area, very few tourists in the backcountry, and the nation was recovering from a World War and an influenza epidemic. The big pine log drives were still occurring up on the Border Lakes. From the perspective of land use history, Carhart’s visit occurred at a key stage. Things were changing fast, and both his plan and his photographs capture that.” –Lee Johnson, Forest Archaeologist-Superior National Forest

Mr. Carhart's work on the Superior was preceded by field visits to the Trappers Lake area in the White River National Forest in Colorado, where he also recommended a balanced approach to recreational development that sought to preserve opportunities for backcountry travel and minimize development. Carhart’s plans for the Superior and White River National Forests are notable as the first formal recreation plans within the USFS. In addition to the 53-page management plan, Carhart left a rich photographic record of his travels on the Superior, capturing nearly 100 photos of landscapes, waterways, and vistas throughout the Forest. Some of these photos we've highlighted in a Flickr album at:

In his plan, Mr. Carhart described how Superior's unique landscape framed his approach:

"Perhaps one of the biggest factors affecting a recreation plan for the Superior Forest lies in the wilderness conditions found practically throughout the forest. There is so little wilderness left where natural conditions are supreme that the Superior stands somewhat by itself in this type. The only other similar sections of land which can be reached by people of the United States are in Canada, or in the extreme upper corner of the state of Maine" (p.5).

Carhart summaries the plan with, "A final statement to emphasize the need of care in development of this forest seems hardly necessary but it is imperative that in the further planning of the recreational features of the Superior, it constantly be kept in mind that this is the only lake type play area owned by the United States and that the typical development as outlined here will enhance that feature. Further, that development imposing mechanical features, such as roads, too highly organized camps, urban types of hotels, et cetera, will not produce the greatest good for the Superior" (p. 45).