It’s about to become a little more difficult to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) in northeastern Minnesota.
The area’s popularity has grown significantly in recent years, and particularly last year as people looked for outdoor activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the surge in visitation led to what the U.S. Forest Service called “an unacceptably high amount of resource damage,” which included the cutting of live trees, improper disposal of human waste, littering, and unattended campfires. There were also reports of illegal entry into the area, lack of permits for visitors, and “disruptive and oversized groups.”
“There are just too many people” in some areas of the wilderness, Susan Catton, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said, a Star Tribune article reports.
As a result, in a move intended to ease congestion and also lessen the impact of visitors, the Forest Service plans to reduce the number of entry permits for the BWCA next year.
A Wilderness Area
The BWCA, encompassing nearly one million acres, lies within the boundaries of the three-million-acre Superior National Forest in northeast Minnesota.
The forest itself is made up of more than 445,000 acres — or 695 square miles — of surface water. There also are more than 1,300 miles of cold-water streams and 950 miles of warm-water streams within the forest. That means canoers can travel along interconnected fresh waters when they visit BWCA.
Extending along the border between the U.S. and Canada, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness includes more than 1,000 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams; however, most of the area is forested, made up of pine, fir, and spruce trees. The area is home to many species of wildlife, including deer, moose, gray wolf, and black bear.
Because the area is a wilderness, permits are required, and, of course, visitors are expected to Leave No Trace.
In 2020, nearly 166,000 people visited the BWCA, which is a 16 percent increase over 2019 and also the highest number of visitors in more than 10 years, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Consequently, the number of issued permits rose from around 25,000 to more than 30,000, Minnesota Public Radio News reported.
Visitation was also high again early in the summer last year, but much of the wilderness closed later in the summer due to wildfires.
The Forest Service uses permits to limit the number of groups entering the wilderness each day. The use of permits also restricts group size to less than nine people and allows the Forest Service to ensure groups of people are equally spread across the area because the permits stipulate which entry point a group can use.
A Limited Number Of Permits
Superior National Forest spokeswoman Joanna Gilkeson said that although the reduction in permits next year will be spread across the entire wilderness, the effort will focus on entry points and lakes where visitors have reported resource damage over the years, and complained about 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,” Minnesota Public Radio News reported.
Gilkeson went on to note that reports of increased crowds, noise levels, and oversized groups have been growing in recent years, although they have spiked in recent years. The planned reduction in the number of permits to be issued next year “isn’t a decision that we made overnight” she said.
The Forest Service didn’t say how many permits would be eliminated, nor which entry points into the wilderness would be impacted.
“However, under one model considered by the Forest Service, overnight paddling and hiking permits would be reduced by 13 percent throughout the reservation season that runs from May 1 through September 30,” the Star Tribune article reports. “Under that scenario, the number of available permits would be cut from 285 permits per day to 248. If that were the case, an estimated 23,000 fewer people would enter the BWCA next year based on the average of four people per group.”
Know Before You Go
If you are issued a permit to enter the BWCA next year, the Forest Service notes that “to ensure visitors understand and follow BWCA Regulations and Rules and Leave No Trace principles, all permit holders are required to watch three Leave No Trace education videos prior to their trip.”
The first step is to watch parts 1 and 2 of the BWCA Leave No Trace video series with your group. The second step is to watch the next video and then review the regulations and rules with your cooperator or Forest Service staff when you pick up your permit.
You can find more information about completing those tasks here.
You can find more information about BWCA Regulations and Rules here.
Be sure to read all of our Outdoor Activities coverage, including 7 Leave-No-Trace Tips You Need To Know, According To A USDA Forest Program Manager, as well as our Minnesota coverage.