Forest Service slashes BWCA permits to protect wilderness. Some say the cuts go too far

A man on a boat.
David Knudsen takes a break from paddling on Clearwater Lake in the Boundary Waters in July 2018. Canoeists eager to take a summer trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness can start making reservations Wednesday. But competition for those permits could be more intense this year.
Courtesy of Vicky Knudsen

David Knudsen took his first trip into the Boundary Waters in 1978 when he and his wife chaperoned a group of kids from their new church in their new hometown of Perham, Minn.

Now 68, Knudsen plans to take his 49th and 50th trips into the wilderness this summer. And even though he’s an experienced canoeist, he said he has two big worries when he begins each trip. 

“Number one is wind. And number two is finding an open site,” Knudson said. “It shouldn’t be that way.” 

For years, many visitors to the Boundary Waters have complained about how tough it can be to find an available campsite, especially near entry points to the wilderness. But the retired teacher said he's also seen plenty of other ways in which increased visitation has taken a toll.

"Cut vegetation, trash left behind, equipment left behind — you know, perhaps you brought too much stuff, you didn't realize how difficult this is going to be — the latrines full of trash, illegal camping, illegal fires."

Those issues were amplified the past couple years as more people sought refuge in the outdoors during the pandemic. 

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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.

But spokesperson Joanna Gilkeson said the Superior National Forest heard lots of similar complaints well before the pandemic in three separate surveys the agency conducted over the past decade. 

"We've received nearly 3,000 comments from our visitors about natural resource degradation, noise, overcrowding, lack of available campsites,” and other issues, Gilkeson said. 

So in response the Forest Service has cut the number of overnight permits by 13 percent. The agency will now issue 248 permits each day between May 1 and Sept. 30. 

With an average of four people per group, that means about 23,000 fewer people can be expected to paddle into the Boundary Waters for overnight camping trips this year.

A rainbow rises over a lake.
A rainbow rises over the South Arm of Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in July 2021.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Gilkeson said the Forest Service reduced the number of permits available at several different entry points across the wilderness. 

"So we looked at the areas where we saw the most overcrowding, where we heard about people not being able to find campsites, having to leave early, you know, telling us about their negative experiences in the wilderness because it didn't feel like a wilderness anymore,” Gilkeson said. 

Many paddlers, and some area businesses, support the move.

“If we lose the wildness of this wilderness, we lose everything that we go there to experience,” said Knudsen. 

But the permit reduction has rankled several outfitters, especially on the eastern side of the wilderness, where 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, daily entry permits into Saganaga Lake were reduced from 20 to 15, and permits for Seagull Lake were reduced from 13 to eight.

"This quota reduction that they did, especially in Seagull Lake, really set me off," said Deb Mark, who this summer will mark her 35th year running Seagull Outfitters, located right on the shore of the lake. 

Businesses like hers work with the Forest Service to issue permits and educate visitors about leave-no-trace wilderness ethics. In 2020, Mark said she issued more than 1,000 permits, her most ever. She said she's always been an ally of the Forest Service, until now. 

"The biggest thing that bothers me is they didn't involve their valued cooperators in this decision-making process at all,” Mark said. “And that really is like a slap in the face. We have a lot of knowledge of what's going on in our area, and they didn't involve us at all."

Mark is also upset that permit reductions weren't distributed more equally. Seagull Lake had its permits cut by 38 percent, she pointed out, while Moose Lake, near Ely, Minn. — the busiest entry point into the wilderness with 27 permits available every day — didn't have any cut.

“So there's a lot of politics going there. And I don't like any of that,” Mark said. “It should be even across the board.”

Other outfitters are also frustrated by the permit quota reduction, and what they saw as the Forest Service’s lack of consultation with them before issuing their decision.  

"Limiting public land access is not a great thing,” said Andy McDonnell, co-owner of Tuscarora Lodge and Outfitters, a few miles down the Gunflint Trail from Seagull Lake. “Anytime you limit public access to public land that people have."

Even so, McDonnell said he’s conflicted because crowding has been a big concern.

"The uptick in usage has been just unbelievable, really just remarkable," McDonnell said. 

Still, he doesn't think the permit reduction will solve the biggest complaint that groups are only paddling a short way into the wilderness and clogging up lakes and campsites closest to parking lots.

He said people willing to paddle and portage some distance into the wilderness have been able to find solitude and quiet.

“It is a solution to a problem. It might not be the solution to the problem,” McDonnell said.

Two people in front of a stream.
Andy McDonnell and Ada Igoe own and operate Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters near the end of the Gunflint Trail.
Courtesy of Andy McDonnell and Ada Igoe

Outfitters have suggested other alternatives, like raising the price of permits and ramping up education and enforcement of laws meant to protect the wilderness. 

Some also say that the permit cuts are an overreaction to what could be only a temporary COVID-19-induced spike in visitation to the Boundary Waters. 

“I don't think this is going to stay this way,” said Mark. “My concern is that [the Forest Service] may not put the [permit] quotas back to where they were.”

Gilkeson said the Forest Service is increasing the number of year-round wilderness rangers from 11 to 21, adding that number will be roughly doubled in the summer by seasonal staff. 

She also said the Forest Service will continue to monitor crowding and natural resource damage in the wilderness, and will continue to solicit feedback from outfitters and other interested groups.

"So we'll be continuing to look at how these [permit] changes impact the wilderness. And we'll be monitoring and continuing to implement additional changes or scale things back as needed, depending on what we're seeing in the next couple years,” Gilkeson said.

Steve Piragis, who owns Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, said he supports the move by the Forest Service, even though he acknowledges it will likely hurt his business some, and the region’s economy as a whole.

"There's an alternative point of view, and that is, the more rare something becomes, the more valuable it becomes,” Piragis said. “The more difficult it is to get a permit, maybe then the more desirable it is."

There may be signs that’s already happening. 

“Our phone is ringing off the hook,” said Andy McDonnell at Tuscarora Lodge. “I think it's really going to make this winter busy with booking canoe trips.”