International Falls wants to capitalize on old foe, Voyageurs National Park

INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. – It was 45 degrees out and raining as Bill Dougherty sped his fishing boat through a maze of rock islands in Voyageurs National Park on the Canadian border. Dougherty’s family owns Rainy Lake Houseboats, a rental service in International Falls, but those boats, with names like “Tamarac” and “The Honeymooner,” were already dry-docked for winter.

Rethinking a Company Town

“If I’m still running houseboats in 2018, it will be 100 consecutive years that my family has been in the tourism business here,” Dougherty said, occasionally checking the GPS device on his dash near a dried bait minnow and a few random fishing lures. His great grandfather bought the Kettle Falls Hotel, at the other end of Rainy Lake, in the early 1900s and his family ran it for the better part of a century. After Voyageurs opened in 1975, his parents sensed an opportunity and started the houseboat rental company that Bill Dougherty now helps run.

Bill Dougherty of Rainy Lake Houseboats thinks Voyageurs National Park is “beautiful.” (MPR photo/Jennifer Vogel)

“This is one of the only places in the country where you can go into the wilderness sitting in a motor boat,” he said. With alcoves like Lost Bay and Cranberry Bay and more than 1,000 islands covered in moss and pine trees, Rainy Lake is rife with hidden nooks and secret beaches. “There are endless miles of undeveloped shoreline,” said Dougherty. “We’re just seeing a small part of it.”

During a two-hour ride, occasionally crossing over into Canada, Dougherty encountered just three boats on the lake. While the October afternoon was less than ideal for pleasure cruising, even in sunny weather, the park is underutilized. An early goal was to draw a million visitors per year, but the 218,000-acre park only attracts a quarter that many.

Dougherty blames the low use partly on a decades-long feud between the park and the city of International Falls, Voyageurs’ largest gateway community and home to its headquarters. Building the park almost 40 years ago created animosity because it involved buying and condemning private land. Snowmobilers, landowners and businesses have opposed it. At one point, somebody hauled an enormous statue of a voyageur, called “Big Vic,” to an island and planted it there in protest. Hard feelings have mellowed in recent years, but some still refuse to embrace and capitalize on the natural wonder next door.

“Pretty much, there has been a constant lack of interest by the local government agencies,” Dougherty said. “They have not supported the tourist industry.” Referring to the Boise paper mill that dominates the landscape in International Falls, he said, “It’s a paper town.”

Voyageurs National Park from the Rainy Lake Visitor Center. (MPR photo/Jennifer Vogel)

“We do not have one piece of infrastructure in the lake service area,” he said. “No sewer, no water. That in itself has been a limitation on adding newer things, things people are looking for. The world isn’t just a fishing hole anymore.” Dougherty thinks the International Falls side of Rainy Lake could use more upscale rooms, at or in addition to existing hotels and resorts, and he’d like to build an RV park near his houseboat dock. But he can’t without a sewer line. “We have three inches of soil on the rock here. The septic systems are stretched to the max.”

The cold shoulder toward the park seems to be warming. In the wake of a recent round of layoffs at the Boise mill that left 265 people without jobs, the city and Koochiching County are taking various measures to diversify the local economy.

International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson supports running a sewer line along a stretch of Rainy Lake shore, and so does Gov. Mark Dayton. Both will push for money from the Legislature to pay for the improvement during the upcoming session. “I’m optimistic about that,” Anderson said. “I think we have a better shot this year.” Anderson also wants to upgrade the terminal building at the city’s small airport.

People in International Falls are exploring all economic options, from new manufacturing to plasma gasification of garbage to partnerships with Fort Frances, the small Canadian city across the border. And many, including Dougherty, are pushing for a greater effort to draw tourists.

A coalition called Destination Voyageurs National Park launched in recent years to promote the park. It was initiated by former International Falls mayor, now city Economic Development Authority director, Shawn Mason and includes cities, counties, lake associations and tourism bureaus from nearby communities.

One of the group’s members, Eric Johnson, started an outfitter two summers ago, providing canoes, tents, firewood and even s ‘more ingredients to vacationers in the park. He boats people to remote camping spots. “Nobody here has done strictly outfitting and canoe rental,” Johnson said. “I’m introducing people to the quiet sports.” He said the business “paid the bills” last year and he expects it to grow. “When I heard about the loss of jobs at the mill, I thought we need something to replace the money walking out of the community.” While tourism isn’t a “silver bullet,” he said, “we already have the infrastructure. It doesn’t cost us any money. Just a little advertising.”

“By statute, the park can’t advertise itself,” Johnson said, so it’s up to advocates and interested parties to get the word out. When they don’t, the park suffers. It’s a self-defeating cycle.

Rainy Lake (MPR photo/Jennifer Vogel)

Still, there is reluctance to push too much for tourism, which sometimes brings seasonal or low-paying jobs. While Anderson supports the sewer line and the airport improvement, he is dubious about banking too much on Voyageurs. “There were promises 30 or so years ago that we were going to be the Yellowstone of Minnesota,” he said. “It has not turned out to be that way. There was a great land taking from individuals and from the paper mill. The paper mill had to sell off, sold to the federal government 60,000 acres of timberlands. I don’t know that we’ve seen the tourism increase because of that.”

He said local people lost out when the park went in, since certain activities, like hunting, are now restricted or forbidden. “(Boise) had campsites all along the lake, which the park took over,” said Anderson, who worked for Boise for 51 years before retiring. “Boise maintained those as good corporate citizens… And they were paying taxes on (the land).”

Nor does he think there is much particularly special about Voyageurs to capitalize on in the future. “Most of northern Minnesota has the same attributes as the park,” he said. “You can go to Cass Lake, Lake Bemidji and experience much the same as here. In Rainy Lake there are a lot of islands. It’s a beautiful lake. Kettle Falls is a treat.”

Inside the airy, LEED-certified Voyageurs headquarters, built in 2011 on the Rainy River near the mouth of the lake, park Superintendent Mike Ward acknowledged the park’s challenges. It’s a long way from the state’s population centers. It also doesn’t have a main attraction, like a Half Dome or Old Faithful. “There is not one remarkable thing,” he said. “But the whole thing is remarkable.”

Ward is trying to increase attendance by accepting more reservations for camp sites. He thinks if people can be guaranteed a spot, they will be more likely to make the trek to the park. Reservations could also help outfitters like Johnson plan trips for guests. “There were promises early on, when they were creating the park, that it would draw a million people here,” Ward said. “We’ve never gotten over a quarter million. Part of that was because of the bad relationship with the communities in the beginning. We were fighting for a lot of the time.”

Voyageurs National Park Superintendent Mike Ward. (MPR photo/Jennifer Vogel)

The $11.5 million Voyageurs headquarters, which includes a public amphitheater and waterfront area, employs 40 full-time people and as many as 120 seasonal workers. The project is viewed as a landmark collaborative effort between the city and the park. Owned by the city EDA and funded with municipal revenue bonds, the federal government pays nearly $110,000 per month in rent, which Mason said more than covers the bond payments. Once the project is paid off, that rent can go toward any number of investments.

It’s part of our “cultural evolution,” Mason said. “It’s a slow process, but we’re getting there.”

Ward called the headquarters a “starting block for a new relationship.” He said the federal government was “terrible” about acquiring land in the 1970s. “People were frustrated by the way the government came in and took land. People felt they were not paid enough. But when they have paid this (headquarters) off, there will be a lot of money going into the community for future generations. For me, it’s an apology to the community.”

Still today, the park is blamed for heightened environmental standards that people feel have hindered the development of industrial and manufacturing jobs in International Falls. Sensitive natural areas fall under the federal Clean Air Act’s “class I” designation, which limits particulate matter and haze. Some in International Falls are annoyed that an AT&T cell phone tower was quashed in 2011 because it would have been visible from the park. “The park is somewhat of a detriment to the possibility of having any kind of heavy industry here,” said Anderson.

While acknowledging heightened standards, Ward thinks the park doesn’t stand in the way as much as people think. “There are reasonable haze requirements,” he said. “We were blamed for not being able to make more pulp (at Boise). But it’s not true. Unfortunately over time, it’s always environmentalists versus industry.”

Asked whether the park, especially in relation to the Boise mill, precludes new industry in International Falls, Steven Pak, who oversees air permitting for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said “It’s definitely not true as a blanket statement.” He said large projects with the potential to emit significant pollution would have to go through an environmental review and modeling process. “That does make it more difficult,” he said. “But it doesn’t close the door.” Smaller projects could be approved fairly simply. “There are businesses that employ lots of people that might not have high emissions and don’t need a permit.”

In some ways, the battle over whether to embrace the park is a battle over whether to welcome outsiders and new businesses to International Falls and the surrounding area. “The fear is that somebody is going to lose out,” said Dougherty, boating past his dry-docked houseboats on Rainy Lake. “But as a small business person, you take a tremendous amount of risk. Some think we’re lunatics.” He said people in International Falls “want to be involved in tourism, but they really don’t know anything about it.”

He thinks the park is beautiful, even in the rain. “Once you get people here, you get a lot of repeat customers,” he said. “You’ll be fishing and people will be mesmerized. They are not looking where they’re supposed to be. It’s so beautiful. You can relax yourself and be ready for another year. I’ve been on a lot of vacations where that didn’t happen.”

“It’s interesting, the different moods of the lake,” Dougherty said, as a weak burst of sun cast silver across the water.

Dougherty aimed his boat toward the Gold Shores area of Rainy Lake, which is just outside of Voyageurs Park. “Now you’ll see the difference between a park and an area that is not a park,” he said. Suddenly, the shoreline was lined with houses, some of them quite large. “This is what you would have had all down the lake,” he said.

He thinks friction over Voyageurs is subsiding, in part thanks to Ward, who he said “put all that in the rear view mirror.”

“The park is hitting its stride,” Dougherty said. “The strife is in the past and it needs to be.”