What is “Heart of the Continent?”

Cross-border collaborative promoting natural, economic health of vast area, from Quetico to Lake Superior, including Ely attractions

by Tom Coombe
A St. Louis County commissioner was in Ely Tuesday, but county government was not on his agenda.
Instead, Frank Jewell of Duluth addressed a packed conference room at the Grand Ely Lodge about a collaboration of a growing number of groups that have aligned to promote the economic, natural and cultural health of a vast region that includes the  largest expanse of public greenspace in the heart of North America.
That’s the gist of the fledgling Heart of the Continent parnership, which has brought together an assortment of stakeholders, from environmental groups to mining interests, units of government to private businesses, all in an effort to promote the lands as well as the communities along the Minnesota and Ontario border.
“It’s really a partnership of people from across the region,” said Jewell, who spoke this week to Ely’s Tuesday Group.
Jewell said the Heart of the Continent initiative covers an area that resembles “kind of a rhinoceros” on the map, from International Falls and Fort Frances over to Thunder Bay, down to Duluth and encompassing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyaguers National Park, the Quetico Provincial Park as well as the Ely area.
In a series of meetings since the group’s inception, participants have looked to find common bonds and areas of common interest, and worked to overcome boundaries, whether between countries, counties or other divisions that have hindered cooperation.
Jewell identified the partnership’s mission of “sustaining and celebrating the health, beauty, diversity and productivity of the natural and cultural resources of the border lakes region.”
The group has put together action strategies and has aligned with National Geographic to promote tourism in the region as a whole.
Jewell outlined the tourism effort, which covers numerous strategies, including promotion of several components that either highlight Ely area attractions or promote activities that are a natural fit for the reigon.
Some of the tourism initiatives are a better fit for other parts of the Heart of the Continent region, including one promoting a waterfall tour, winter surfing on Lake Superior or exploring history at Voyageurs National Park.
But numerous others have local tie-ins, including those that promote fishing, cultural history stops, community festivals, museums such as the North American Bear Center and International Wolf Center, and winter activities.
“I don’t think we do a good enough job of telling what an amazing place this is during the winter,” said Jewell. “One of the things we have to sell is four seasons of recreation.”
The partnership has identified five broad action strategies, including increasing respect for the land and its people, tapping the power of collaboration across borders, promoting scientific research and its application, building awareness and support for public lands, and sharing resources to protect public lands.
In addition to the tourism  promotion initiative, which can also be found online (traveltheheart.org), the partnership has taken on volunteer initiatives and is promoting volunteer opportunities with groups and organizations within the partnership area.
“There’s something out there for everybody,” said Jewell.
Earlier this year, the partnership had its own volunteer project, aiding with campsite maintenance in the “back country” of the Superior National Forest.
Jewell also disspelled speculation that the group would step into the contentious debate over proposed copper-nickel mining projects in the region.
“We are specifically non-issue related,” said Jewell. “We have chosen not to take that on. Part of the reason is we have part of the mining community represented (in the partnership).”