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Forest Service cuts access to BWCA to relieve crowding

Some 23,000 fewer people will be allowed to enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) this year under a 13% reduction in the availability of entry permits, the U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday.

The quota reduction — the first sizable change in access to the BWCA since 2011 — is intended to remedy complaints about crowding and resource damage that took off in 2020 and continued last year. The surge in visitation has coincided with the overall boom in outdoor recreation related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Forest Service first signaled its intent to cut entry quotas about a month ago. On Thursday, the agency released a slate of specific permit reductions at 23 launch sites. In all, the number of available permits will be cut from about 285 per day to 248. The average group size is four people to a permit.

Joanna Gilkeson, a spokeswoman for the Duluth office of the Forest Service, said the bulk of cuts are on the east side of the 1.1 million-acre wilderness, in the Tofte and Gunflint districts. Besides limiting access, the agency said it has hired a few more forest rangers to patrol the BWCA to enforce regulations and to educate campers about the BWCA’s Leave No Trace resource policy.

“These changes focus on areas where we have gotten the most comments from visitors and outfitters,” Gilkeson said. “We’re using all the tools we have to manage the wilderness to keep it as the amazing place that people love to visit.”

One example of the redrawn quota system is at the popular Sawbill Lake entry point near Tofte. Last year, the Forest Service offered 14 paddling permits per day at the launch site. In this year’s quota season, which will run from May 1 to Sept. 30, Sawbill’s canoe traffic will be cut sizably by three fewer permits per day.

Other water access entry points cut by more than one permit a day include Seagull Lake, Saganaga Lake, Trout Lake, Brule Lake, Little Indian Sioux River-North and Kawishiwi Lake. Another change will abandon the previously unlimited access to BWCA’s Brule Lake Trail and Eagle Mountain Trail. Starting this year, the Forest Service will impose a quota of one entry permit per day, per trail.

Gilkeson said the worst crowding has been on lakes close to the perimeter of the BWCA that have been popularized on social media. Visitors to those places have complained about intense competition for campsites, damage to campsites and trails, congestion at portages, loud music and unruly behavior.

Many BWCA veterans are pleased by the quota reduction, hoping it will preserve the solitude they seek from the wilderness. Some outfitters, but not all, have objected, saying the reduced availability will increase frustration during the booking process. Also, the added scarcity of entry permits will expose fewer people to canoe country, they have said.

Permit reservations for the 2022 quota season will become available beginning at 9 a.m. Jan. 26. Visitors are encouraged to book their trip online at www.recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777. Forest managers encourage would-be paddlers to have at least three travel options in mind before attempting to reserve a permit.



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