Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo by Joe Friedrichs
Joe Friedrichs

Forest Service to shut down BWCA amid drought and wildfire concerns

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is closed.

As drought and active wildfires impact the most visited wilderness area in the nation, the U.S. Forest Service will announce today that overnight permits to enter the wilderness will not be issued at this time and all backcountry access is prohibited until further notice. Day trips to the BWCA are not allowed under the closure.

This includes all entry points on the Gunflint Trail, Sawbill Trail, Arrowhead Trail and across the Gunflint and Tofte districts.

Much of the western side of the BWCA was closed ahead of Saturday’s announcement shutting down access to the entire wilderness area. Earlier this week, Quetico Provincial Park shut down all backcountry access due to drought conditions, smoke and active wildfires.

Tofte District Ranger Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak confirmed with WTIP that wilderness rangers will alert recreationists who are currently in the BWCA of the closure. Notifications will start with areas where active fires are burning, including Tuscarora Lake and the Sawbill Lake area. Even with a large section of the BWCA in the Ely area already closed ahead of Saturday’s announcement to close the entire wilderness area, it will take time to clear the backcountry of canoe campers, backpackers and other recreationists. The BWCA is a 1.1 million acre wilderness area with many remote campsites dispersed throughout a series of lakes, streams and hiking trails.

“This is not a panic-type situation,” Bogardus-Szymaniak said. “This is about taking precaution with multiple wildfires burning in the wilderness and resources being limited due to fires outside the wilderness.”

The Greenwood Fire near Isabella continues to grow just south of the BWCA. As of noon Saturday, the fire was more than 9,000 acres and zero percent contained. Inside the wilderness, the John Elk Fire continues to burn and spread rapidly. The John Elk Fire is now more than 1,500 acres. The Whelp Fire near Sawbill Lake continues to burn as well, expanding from 30 acres to approximately 80 acres on Saturday.

Included in the closure are all portages, lakes, waterways and hiking trails in the BWCA. Recreationists with reserved permits for the next week will be refunded. The closure order will be reviewed weekly, according to Forest Service officials.

WTIP spoke with Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins earlier this week about a possible closure of the entire BWCA. Cummins told News Director Joe Friedrichs that a decision to shut down the wilderness is not made lightly.

“Shutting down anything in the Boundary Waters, or even outside of the Boundary Waters, it’s a hard decision,” Cummins said. “It impacts the economy. It impacts people’s visitation, it’s a highly visited area. So when we look at the closures in the Boundary Waters in particular, we are mostly associating it with fires in the vicinity.”

News of the shutdown was being discussed widely on social media platforms and other unofficial news sites Saturday morning before the Forest Service confirmed the closure publicly. And while the BWCA shutdown is unique, it is not the first time access to this highly visited canoe country has been restricted. According to detailed chronology of the BWCA, a travel ban in the Boundary Waters was issued in the paddling season of 1976 due to drought and active wildfires.

When it comes to popular lakes such as Seagull and Saganaga at the end of the Gunflint Trail that are partially in and outside of the wilderness, only the section of the lake inside the BWCA will be closed, according to Forest Service officials.

WTIP will report on local impacts of the 2021 BWCA closure in the days, and likely weeks ahead.

Though the closure order will be reviewed weekly, there is currently no timeline for when the BWCA will reopen to public access.