A new report on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness shows visitors are now older and more educated compared to the 'typical visitor' in the 60s, when the government designated the land as a wilderness area.
The BWCAW, which is part of the Superior National Forest, spans more than one million acres in northern Minnesota, though the general term the "Boundary Waters" often also includes the adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, another wilderness area that includes its own million acres.
The report used visitor surveys in 2007 and compared them to surveys that were done in 1969 and 1991.
The report also showed that the percentage of people who go to the Boundary Waters primarily to fish is less than it was even 20 years ago.
Bob Dvorak, lead author of the study and a professor at Central Michigan University, said this information is crucial for land managers so they can understand their visitors and trends.
People who rely on the BWCAW for their livelihood -- nearby outfitters and hotels -- also should study the report, Dvorak said, so they can understand their customer base. If fewer people are fishing, for example -- 35 percent reported going to the BWCAW primarily to fish in 2007, compared to 47 percent in 1991 -- that can inform future discussions of how to manage the land and cater to those visitors, he said.
Age: In 1969, the median age of the Boundary Waters visitor was 26, which included a lot of students. By 2007, the median age had shot up to 45. Dvorak says that age increase can probably be explained in part by the state's entire demographics. Minnesota is getting older, and most visitors were from Minnesota.
First-time visitors: The number of first-time visitors is also down significantly. In 1969, 30 percent of visitors were first-timers, but by 2007 only 6 percent were first-time visitors.
Education: On the education front, nearly everyone who goes to the Boundary Waters has a high school diploma. In 1969, 20 percent of all visitors didn't have a high school diploma. By 1991, that dropped to zero percent and bumped back up to 1 percent in 2007.
Crowding: What are people's perception of how crowded it was? Dvorak said he was unable to get a good grasp of day visitors as most of this study looked at overnight visitors. Fewer people reported the Boundary Waters being completely uncrowded, which shows the trend is moving towards the idea that there is some crowding, but only in a few places during a trip.
"The fact that we don't have this huge explosion of 'It was crowded everywhere; we were frustrated with how crowded it was' -- we're not seeing that," he said. "And so I think that's a very good sign. We're much more in the category of 'Let's keep an eye on things.' There's no huge red flag right now."
Day-trip visitors are still a population not truly understood, Dvorak said.
"We really struggled to understand day users, and we recognize that they're a very important component to the visitation of the BWCA," he said. "Someone who goes on a 10-day trip has a very different set of expectations than a person who is out for three hours. Maybe that's where the first-time visitors are; they only spend three hours in the BWCA, instead of three days. What is that going to mean if that becomes the preferred or dominant use, compared to the traditional use we're used to seeing?"