John Roth

A Q&A with John Roth, a lawyer-turned-environmentalist at the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

What do you call a lawyer who enjoys wandering in the wilderness? That’s no joke—it’s John Roth, who recently ended a 25-year legal career to head Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a group that has advocated for the preservation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) since 1976. He’s paddled through the million-acre swath of lakes and forest on Minnesota’s Canadian border—the world’s largest interconnected canoe country—more times than he can remember. We asked him why wilderness matters, as well as what campers should never forget to pack.

Why do we need wilderness areas like the Boundary Waters?
Something happens to people when they go into wilderness—it helps them connect with their inner selves and realize the connectedness of all life. It teaches some extremely important lessons about how to live—that everybody has to carry their own weight and cooperate, and that every action has an impact on others. It takes away the arrogance of people. When you’re driving your huge SUV and bullying people around, it’s easy to think, “I can do anything I want.” Well, no, you can’t.

What’s the biggest deadweight in your canoe, the thing you bring but never need?
My dog. But she’s very sweet to have along.

What do you always make sure to pack?
I bring two extra paddles per canoe.

As Boundary Waters land use has become more restrictive over the past century, people living or working in the area have had to move out. Battles over usage continue to this day. Can you help heal the rifts?
I’ve been meeting with all of the stakeholders, giving them an opportunity to tell me about their concerns, their angers. They love the country up there. The way they want to use it may differ from the way I think it ought to be used, but some of them paid great sacrifices—they lost their cabins or their resorts. They were compensated, but nonetheless it represented an imposed change on them.

How might your legal experience help negotiate future deadlock?

In transactional law, which I practiced, you try not to beat the other party—you try to bring them to the table.

What issues are you working on?

Logging operations outside the Boundary Waters—making sure they do not have an adverse impact on the quality of the BWCAW. The threat of exotic invasive species—the gypsy moth, for instance. All of the proposed mining operations just outside the Boundary Waters. The land rush up north. There are some lakes [in the BWCAW] that allow motorboats. We would prefer that would not be the case, and that at some point they be restored as a full wilderness. And there are some roadless areas that we feel should be given permanent protection. As our population increases, it’s going to be a challenge to preserve the wilderness character.

What’s the one guilty pleasure item you bring camping?
Wine. I pour it into water jugs. One of my great pleasures at the end of the day is to sit on a rock, looking at the sunset with a cup of wine. It’s a wonderful indulgence.