The first snow that stuck to the ground fell this week in the woods away from Lake Superior. It came in the night, so the first sight that greeted our eyes upon awakening was a world transformed by snow on every twig and needle. My favorite part of the first snow is the subtle, but distinct smell that accompanies it. It is a fresh and clean scent that promises many adventures in the upcoming season. Soon we will all be riding, sliding and gliding again.
The Forest Service is making some changes to the BWCA Wilderness permit system. It makes me feel old to admit it, but I’ve been intimately involved with the wilderness permit system since it began back in the late ‘60s. It almost goes without saying that the whole point of having a permit system is to keep the wilderness experience sustainable by providing visitor education, preventing crowding through a quota system, and collecting data.
In the days before desktop computers, the whole permit system was run on paper. This was a big job and was handled by Forest Service employees in Duluth. To save on labor, they would collect permit applications by mail for a couple of months without processing them. When the pile got big enough, they would open all the letters and issue confirmations. In the rare event that the applications for a given date at a particular entry point exceeded the quota, they would throw those applications in a hat and pull out the winners and notify the losers that they needed to change their entry date or entry point. This little system was called the lottery and it grew to cause a lot of confusion among BWCA Wilderness visitors. Now that more than 90% of permits are reserved online, the lottery procedure developed during the dark ages is being dropped, which will make the system much less confusing and straightforward. All permit reservations will be made on a first come, first served basis starting January 25th.
The other change that the Forest Service is pondering is to allow visitors to issue permits to themselves online, so they don’t have to stop at a Forest Service office or outfitters to pick up their permit in person, as they do now. Currently, every visitor to the wilderness is required to have a few minutes of leave-no-trace education before his or her permit is issued. Although this is a little pesky, it has had a very positive impact on people’s behavior in the wilderness over the years. In my opinion, allowing people to issue their own permits would mean that the vast majority of visitors would not receive even minimal instruction in the leave-no-trace principles. The Forest Service is suggesting that the use be required to watch the video online and then check a box that pledges that they have done so. I don’t think that would work. I confess right now that I regularly check boxes that pledge that I have read the terms and conditions, when I actually never read the terms and conditions.
The real reason that the Forest Service is proposing this is, of course, to cut the budget and eliminate their front desk staff people. I would prefer that they either find money for the staff in their budget, or raise the permit user fees a few dollars to cover the staff. I also think it would be disastrous to eliminate all user education. If you think about it, wilderness is really more of an idea than a place. If you were to stand on the wilderness boundary and look both ways, it will look pretty much the same. What makes wilderness different is the social contract where we all agree to think about an area of land in a certain way and limit our activities on that land to maintain its character for future generations. At the end of the day, wilderness is just an idea that we share in our minds, making education its most important attribute.
Silver Bay will be formally breaking ground on its eco-industrial park this week. The ceremony will be at 1:30 p.m., Monday Oct. 24th, off State Highway 61 on the waterfront just north of County Highway 5. County and state officials are expected to attend. Plans for the ambitious eco-industrial park include a biomass heat and power facility, a greenhouse that will grow food for Silver Bay residents, and a fish farm that would make use of fish waste to grow algae for bio-diesel fuel.