Forest Service announces 13 percent cut in Boundary Waters entry permits

Fire Lake
A view of Fire Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on July 13, 2019.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News 2019

The U.S. Forest Service unveiled changes to its overnight quota system this week that will result in about 23,000 fewer people being allowed to enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness each summer, starting this year.

Under the new guidelines, the Forest Service will issue 248 permits each day for the quota season that runs May 1 through Sept. 30, down from about 285. That’s a 13 percent reduction.

With an average of four people per group, over the entire five-month season that means about 23,000 fewer people can be expected to paddle into the Boundary Waters for overnight camping trips.

The Forest Service announced its intentions to reduce the number of people who can enter the Boundary Waters last month. A spokesperson at the time said the move was necessary to reduce natural resource damage, crowding, congestion and the “overall degradation of the wilderness.”

Visitation to the Boundary Waters has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people sought out outdoor activities where it was easy to socially distance.

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. Numbers were high again last year before wildfires forced closures across large stretches of the wilderness.

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The permit reductions announced by the Forest Service are spread across the entire wilderness and are focused on more-popular entry points where visitors have complained over the years about crowding and an inability to find campsites.

On the eastern side of the wilderness, several large, popular lakes saw their number of daily entry permits slashed.

Eleven groups will now be allowed to enter Sawbill Lake every day, down from 14. On the end of the Gunflint Trail, entry permits into Seagull Lake have been reduced from 13 to eight, and from 20 to 15 on Saganaga Lake.

On the western side of the BWCA, popular entry points like Lac La Croix, Indian Sioux - North and Moose/Portage River North all saw their quotas reduced by two groups per day.

Many longtime paddlers have praised the move, saying they’ve noticed a loss of quiet and solitude in the vast million-acre wilderness in recent years. But some canoe outfitters have criticized it, saying it will harm the region’s tourism economy and limit the number of people who can experience the wilderness.

Reservations for the upcoming season will be available starting Jan. 26. Visitors are encouraged to book their reservations online at www.recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777. 

The Forest Service recommends that people have at least three travel options in mind when they make reservations — including different possible dates and entry points. With the drop in the number of permits available, competition for popular entry points could be fierce.