On June 21-22, 1994, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute hosted the Robert E. Matteson Brule River Workshop: Sustaining the Brule River Ecosystem, Past, Present, and Future. This event marked the revival of an Institute activity known as “problem-solving workshops.”
Institute records show that the revival of these workshops was initiated by Jane Matteson in a letter to then-Northland College President Robert Parsonage. In this letter, Jane shared her vision for workshops that would bring together “about 25 people” to “discuss an issue and try to find common ground on which a solution could be based.” The goal was to “go beyond just education,” and the workshops were to culminate in a published report. Jane and her husband, Robert, who had served as the Institute’s founding director, provided seed money for an endowment designated to support the workshops.
It was appropriate, for a number of reasons, that the revival of the problem-solving workshops focused first on the Brule River, a Lake Superior tributary in far northwestern Wisconsin near Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. The Mattesons had a personal affinity for the Brule River and Robert, in particular, was intrigued by the river’s history as a fur-trade route between Lake Superior and the Mississippi River. Acting on this intrigue in June of 1974, Matteson paddled a canoe with Grant Herman (a Northland College student who went on to serve the College as a faculty member and as a director of the Institute) from La Pointe on Wisconsin’s Madeline Island to St. Paul, Minnesota, via the Brule, St. Croix, and Mississippi Rivers, a journey that Matteson documented in a written “log.”
A number of early advisory board members for the Institute had affinities for the Brule River as well, including John “Smokey” Ordway, Jr., Carl Drake, Bob Banks, Al Lindeke, Ted Weyerhaeuser, and Mary Van Evera. In part because of these affinities, the Brule River had been chosen as a topic for one of the Institute’s original problem-solving workshops in November of 1973 and, in May of 1974, Smokey Ordway hosted the Institute’s Advisory Board luncheon on Cedar Island.
As Chuck Zosel, who was serving as the forest supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 1994, observed in his presentation for the Matteson Brule River Workshop, the Brule River was also an appropriate choice for a revival of problem-solving workshops because the Brule River State Forest had been “the center of controversy for many years” and, Zosel continued, if you are “looking for a hot debate, just mention the Brule River . . . and you’ve got a sure thing.”
The summary provided in the published report from the 1994 Matteson Brule River Workshop explained that the workshop was designed to facilitate conversations among citizens, experts, and policy makers that would define issues and concerns to be addressed in an update to the Brule River State Forest’s ten-year master plan. The conversations at the workshop were organized into three focus areas: the aquatic community and fishery, the forest community and wildlife, and recreation and aesthetics. For each focus area, a vision was established as well as lists of issues or problems, information and research needs, and recommendations or approaches. The published report for the workshop captured all of these outcomes as well as much of the contextual information that was provided by presenters during the workshop.
After the 1994 Matteson Brule River Workshop, the Institute continued to be engaged in a variety of activities focused on the Brule River. In the early 2000’s, for instance, five Northland College students worked with Institute director Kenneth Bro and professors Tom Fitz and Paul Schue to write Pines & Paddlers: A Guide to the History of the Bois Brule River, a publication that was funded by The Friends of the Brule River & Forest and the Four Cedars Foundation.
In 2009, a group of fifteen students under the direction of Mike Gardner at the Institute conducted a forest assessment for Brule River Preservation Incorporated, a collection of private landowners committed to preserving the integrity of the Brule River and its basin.
As the student authors of Pines & Paddlers write in the introduction and epilogue for their booklet, when “one stands at the edge of the Bois Brule River, one almost instantly senses something not easily described. The soothing sounds of flowing water, the beauty of black spruces pointing skyward, the lisping call of cedar waxwings flying overhead. The natural beauty of this stream is compelling . . .” and it “has been a focus of attention for beauty and utility for as long as humankind has walked its shores.”
The Institute is proud of the attention that it has been able to give to this special and storied river over the past fifty years and anticipates that it will continue to be an important focus in the years ahead.