Forest Service to cut entry permits into the Boundary Waters

Morning fog lifts from Alton Lake in the BWCA.
Morning fog lifts from Alton Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Aug. 24, 2019.
Matt Sepic | MPR News 2019

The U.S. Forest Service says it’s reducing the number of entry permits into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness next year because of natural resource damage, crowding and congestion, and what a spokesperson called the “overall degradation of the wilderness.”

The Superior National Forest is taking this step starting in 2022, "to see how adjusting the quota helps to reduce some of the damage that we've been seeing,” said spokesperson Joanna Gilkeson.

The Forest Service didn’t say how many permits would be eliminated, nor which entry points into the wilderness would be impacted. She said that information would hopefully be released before the end of the year.

The Forest Service limits the number of groups that can enter the wilderness per day, doesn’t allow groups larger than nine people, and spreads them out across the million-acre wilderness by limiting the number of groups that can enter each of the dozens of entry points.

Gilkeson said the quota reduction would be spread across the entire wilderness, with a focus on more popular entry points and lakes where visitors have complained over the years about resource damage, an inability to find campsites, “and just not having the wilderness experience that they expected to have or that they've had in the past.”

Visitation to the Boundary Waters has surged over the past couple summers during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people have sought out outdoor activities and other family activities were canceled.

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Nearly 166,000 people visited the BWCA in 2020, a 16 percent jump from the previous year and the most in at least a decade, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The number of permits issued jumped from around 25,000 to more than 30,000.

Visitation was again high at the beginning of the summer of 2021— many outfitters reported record reservations — but wildfires later in the summer forced evacuations and closures of broad areas of the wilderness.

That increased popularity played a role in what Forest Service officials called “unprecedented natural resource damage” in the Boundary Waters, including the cutting of live trees, littering, and improper disposal of human waste.

There were also reports of increased crowding and noise levels, as well as disruptive, oversized groups.

Tree cut down along BWCAW lake
The U.S. Forest Service's Superior National Forest division posted this photo to Facebook July 2020, as part of a series highlighting what not to do in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

Gilkeson said while those issues were amplified the past couple summers, they’ve been getting those kinds of complaints for years. The reduction in quota “isn't a decision that we made overnight” she said.

Still, it’s a decision that rankled Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Company, one of many businesses in northeastern Minnesota that supply gear, food and other services for thousands of canoeists every summer.

“They’re taking actions that mean that a lot of people who want to go to the Boundary Waters won't be able to because there won't be a permit,” Zabokrtsky said.

“And I think excluding people from experiencing the Boundary Waters doesn't align with our mission as a business, or what I think is necessarily in the best interest of the wilderness and the people of Minnesota and the people around the country that love to visit this special place.”

Zabokrtsky said he’s been told that popular entry points in the Kawishiwi Ranger district, where he likes to send customers, will see significant reductions.

For example, he said that the number of parties allowed to enter the wilderness via an entry point known as Moose River North will be reduced from seven parties a day to five.

Similarly, he said the Little Indian Sioux River North entry point will have daily permits reduced from six to four.

He said when you add those kinds of cuts up across several entry points from May through September, it will result in a significant blow to the region.

“We’re going to have thousands of people who are not coming to northeastern Minnesota to go to the Boundary Waters. And all those people who come to northeastern Minnesota are spending money in our local businesses and supporting our economy.”

Zabokrtsky believes the Forest Service could have taken less drastic steps to address resource degradation, overcrowding and other issues.

“There are awesome opportunities for the Forest to step up its entire education program, and I haven't seen any of that,” he said. Zabokrtsky also said the Forest Service could increase the number of wilderness rangers who patrol the Boundary Waters.

Gilkeson said the Forest Service worked to amp up its “Leave No Trace” wilderness ethics education last year. Visitors were required to watch three videos before departing on their trip.

She said the Forest Service also has been working to backfill what had been several wilderness ranger vacancies.

Gilkeson recommends that people reserve their permits early for next season when they become available in late January, that they have backup trip options, and also to consider trips in remote areas of the forest outside the Boundary Waters.

Zabokrtsky said he’s always told his customers to be ahead of the curve and reserve their permits early. Now he’ll be telling them to be “extra aware, and get the permit extra early this time.”