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Forest Service to reduce quota numbers for BWCA in 2022

The number of people legally allowed to enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) for overnight camping trips from May through September will be reduced for the next paddling season.

“We are reducing quota across the forest at entry points where we frequently get comments from visitors about congestion, crowding, or natural resource degradation,” Superior National Forest Public Affairs Specialist Joanna Gilkeson told WTIP.

Each year from May 1 to Sept. 30, visitors taking an overnight paddle or hiking trip, or a motorized day trip into the BWCA are required to obtain a quota permit. With permits in high demand during recent paddling seasons – particularly during the past two years amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – some canoeists struggled to find available campsites, particularly near popular lakes such as Sawbill, Brule, Duncan and Seagull on the east side of the BWCA.

Ten out of the 34 entry points on the Gunflint District and six of the 13 entry points on the Tofte District will see a reduction in permit quota numbers in 2022. The Forest Service declined to say the specific entry points the quota reduction will impact. All districts across the BWCA will see a quota reduction next year.

“This change will be implemented in the upcoming 2022 permit season,” Gilkeson said. “We’re optimistic that some reductions in quota will improve the overall visitor experience, and, of course, benefit the wilderness.”

Anecdotally speaking, weary paddlers are quick to complain about racing other groups for campsites, being forced to camp illegally in the brush or making camp in the middle of a pleasant travel day just to ensure they have a site for the night.

Forest Service officials said many BWCA entry points and associated routes are regularly experiencing social resource concerns such as crowding, disruptive and oversized groups, lack of campsite availability or unsettling competition for campsites. Illegal camping is also becoming more of a problem in the BWCA, Gilkeson said.

“Physical resource damage includes littering, cutting of live trees and campsite vegetation, washing dishes and bodies with soap in the lakes and not properly using the latrines,” she added.

Reducing the number of overnight permits to the BWCA could reduce some visitation to the wilderness, but day permits are free and do not operate on a quota system. Many of the popular entry points to the BWCA can become congested with day users, Gilkeson acknowledged. One example of this is the iconic stairway portage located between Duncan and Rose lakes. Reports from 2021 by BWCA visitors included literal lines forming to get up or down the portage and to view the waterfalls between the two lakes.

Though it remains the most visited wilderness area in the nation, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic visitation to the BWCA was steadily declining, according to the Forest Service.

Approximately 22,000 more people visited the BWCA in 2020 when compared to 2019, according to data compiled by the Forest Service. Prior to 2020, the average number of visitors to the BWCA was around 150,000 people annually.

Quota is one way the Forest Service believes it can address resource damage. The federal agency also uses education tools such as required video focused on ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, customer service, volunteers and wilderness rangers to help reduce impact of visitors on the BWCA and educate people about how to help preserve the landscape into the future, according to Gilkeson.

Permits for all BWCA entry points for the 2022 season will be available on Wednesday, Jan. 26 at 9 a.m. Central Time.

The audio below is an interview with WTIP’s Joe Friedrichs speaking with Gilkeson about the quota reduction for 2022.