The Sierra Club lost a life-long member on May 3, 2014. Fern Arpi of Duluth, and formerly of Virginia, Minnesota, died just weeks short of her 94th birthday.
Fern’s environmental activism dates back to the 1960’s. As someone who immensely enjoyed the cabin that she and her husband built on Lake Eshquaguma near Biwabik, Fern began to inform herself about environmental issues. She became a founding member of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and lobbied before Congress in support of the 1978 BWCAW legislation. The legislation was almost immediately followed by copper-nickel exploration off Spruce Road near Ely. Fern attended hearings and continued letter writing until a market downturn stopped the threat, and a temporary state moratorium was placed on copper-nickel mining.
Following her husband’s death, Fern took on new activities, including assisting Wilderness Inquiry with their canoe trips for the disabled, and traveling to countries such as Tibet and China with a group that did service projects in those areas.
At age 79, Fern was jailed as part of peaceful resistance against the U.S. Navy ELF (Extremely Low Frequency radio waves) project , being set up in Wisconsin to communicate with nuclear submarines. There continue to be questions about the health and environmental effects of the radio-frequency waves. ELF was started in 1989 and finally shut down in 2004 as unnecessary.
When Fern stopped driving in her mid-80’s, she moved to Westwood apartments in Duluth, where she could take advantage of public transportation. Fern took part in University for Seniors at UMD, even organizing classes on sulfide mining and nature literature.
Fern participated early on as the SC Northstar Chapter began to inform itself about PolyMet. This included a tour of the mine site in 2005, along with canoe trips to check out the Embarrass River. Once Fern moved to Duluth, she participated in environmental coalition meetings, as the PolyMet issue ramped up to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) stage in 2009. This past March, Fern submitted comments on the PolyMet Supplemental DEIS .
Yet more important than the details in Fern’s life is the pattern of her life. Fern remained an activist into her 90’s, only slowing down to delve more inward during her last two years. She worked with Boundary Waters icons such as Sig Olson and Bud Heinselman on the BWCAW issue. And she both guided and encouraged those of us who are 30 years or more her junior–a full generation behind her.
Fern demonstrated for us her persistence, and her continued intellectual pursuit. She attended hearings, submitted oral comments, and wrote reams of letters throughout the years, while managing to include family canoe trips and winter skiing into her life. She demonstrated how one can adjust and persevere through all the stages of one’s life. Fern impacted a great many people, showing just how much one individual can contribute to the moral fabric of life.
Fern will be missed. It only remains to be seen how far we can carry on her work–to halt PolyMet and protect the ecological balance and remaining integrity of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region.