REGIONAL— The COVID-19 pandemic prompted more Americans to spend time in the outdoors over the past two summers and, for many, that meant taking a trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. But …
REGIONAL— The COVID-19 pandemic prompted more Americans to spend time in the outdoors over the past two summers and, for many, that meant taking a trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. But all that love came at a cost to the resource, according to U.S. Forest Service officials who are tasked with protecting the 1.1 million-acre wilderness. It also impacted the experience of visitors, many of whom reported congested portages and difficulty finding campsites.
That’s prompted a decision by the U.S. Forest Service to reduce the number of overnight permits in the wilderness, a decision that is likely to exacerbate the already intense competition for access.
Forest Service spokesperson Sue Catton said managing the Boundary Waters is always a balancing act, between the need to protect the wilderness, provide for a quality wilderness experience, and maintain the business community that serves wilderness users.
According to Catton, the Forest Service maintains 74 entry points into the BWCAW, but is most concerned with 24 of the highest-use locations. “These are where we’re seeing the most crowding and competition for campsites and resource damage,” she said.
While at least one media report suggested that the Forest Service might cut permits by 13 percent, Catton said the reduction likely won’t be that large, and that the reductions could be phased in over a couple years. The Forest Service will make its final permit numbers public before the end of December. Reservations for Boundary Waters permits open on a first-come, first-served basis beginning on Wednesday, Jan. 26.
For wilderness outfitters, who experienced the overwhelming demand for permits the past two summers, the news of reductions effective for the 2022 paddling season came out of the blue, without any input into the decision.
“It was a surprise to us,” said Steve Piragis, who operates Piragis Northwoods Company and Outfitters in Ely. Piragis said finding available permits was tough last summer. “A lot of folks ended up entering through Trout Lake because there was no alternative,” said Piragis. “All the popular entries were filled up for the whole summer,” he added.
The Forest Service confirms that wilderness use is up sharply. Nearly 166,000 people visited the Boundary Waters in 2020, a 16 percent increase over the year before. Visitation numbers for 2021 are due out in January but may be tempered somewhat by last summer’s closures due to fire conditions.
While fewer permits will likely bring disappointment to more wilderness users, Piragis agrees it was probably necessary given the increased visitation since the COVID pandemic.
“I think it’s a good idea that the Forest Service is doing what they do: protecting the wilderness,” he said.
That view isn’t universal. “It’s a lot of people they’re excluding from the wilderness,” said Jason Zabokrtsky, who operates the Ely Outfitting Company. “It’s a significant change for the wilderness. Some changes may be warranted, some maybe not.”
Zabokrtsky argues that the Forest Service could do more to educate visitors in an effort to minimize user impact and he urged the agency to work more with outfitters and other stakeholders to develop ideas for doing so.
“There are definitely issues of concern about some resource damage, and campsite availability and congestion at portages,” acknowledged Zabokrtsky. “I think a comprehensive look at those issues is important, but I also think there are a lot of options to address those concerns. Excluding people may not be the best way to do that.”
Catton agrees that educating visitors is important, and that was something that proved more difficult in 2020, when most Forest Service offices were closed due to the pandemic. The Forest Service did eventually develop a virtual “Leave-No-Trace” program, but Catton said having in-person contact with visitors is still the best option.
She said the Forest Service is also committing to hiring additional wilderness rangers to ensure that education and outreach continues even when visitors are in the wilderness.
But education can’t solve every problem associated with overcrowding. And Catton notes that the Forest Service has received thousands of comments over the past ten years from users who complained about overcrowding and damage to campsites. “We’ve heard from people who have left the wilderness early because they couldn’t find a campsite,” she said.
Other factors contributing
The pressure on the Boundary Waters has been exacerbated since the COVID-19 closures prohibited access to Quetico Provincial Park, which has long served as a kind of pressure-relief valve for the much-busier BWCAW.
“I think that contributes to the crowding we’re seeing on our side,” said Catton.
While primary entry points, like the crossing at International Falls, have re-opened to fully vaccinated individuals, the remote access border crossing program remains suspended, according to Trevor Gibb, Quetico’s park superintendent.
Gibb notes that the park has no jurisdiction over border crossing policy and he said he doesn’t know whether remote border crossings at places like Prairie Portage will be allowed in time for the 2022 paddling season.
For now, said Gibb, Americans will need to plan to use the crossings at International Falls or at Pigeon River and access the Quetico from the north if they wish to visit the wilderness park next year.
The concerns about overuse and overcrowding in the Boundary Waters are, in part, a reflection of the changing ways in which visitors use the wilderness, said Catton. “Fewer people are going into the heart of the wilderness,” she said. “There’s a lot more base camping along the periphery.” That tends to concentrate people and the resulting impact on a relative handful of lakes located near popular entry points.
Zabokrtsky agrees, but says there are ways to address the situation. He said restricted permits, which would provide entry point access while prohibiting users from camping on the most popular lakes along the route, could help spread the use out and limit the impact on high-traffic lakes and campsites.
He said the Forest Service’s first-come, first-served policy has contributed to the problem, and means there will always be situations where sites fill up too quickly in popular areas.
Zabokrtsky said more education for users can also help, particularly if the Forest Service could encourage use of the more remote parts of the wilderness. “We found if people were willing to travel a solid day into the wilderness, they left most of the groups behind.”
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