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Groups decry illegal motor use

Minnesota environmental groups Monday released a report describing illegal motor use inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, including chain saws, motorboats and snowmobiles.

Minnesota environmental groups Monday released a report describing illegal motor use inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, including chain saws, motorboats and snowmobiles.

The groups say that federal budget cuts for wilderness programs and law enforcement, and in some cases lax public acceptance of the regulations, have caused of wilderness erosion and have damaged the BWCAW.

The report was released by the Izaak Walton League of America, Sierra Club North Star Chapter, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and Wilderness Watch.

Representatives of the groups will meet Tuesday with Superior National Forest officials, who oversee the BWCAW, to discuss their findings.

Most of the violations cited in the report happened in the eastern part of the BWCAW, north of the Gunflint Trail.

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The groups' 20-page report includes photographs that show snowmobile tracks on the U.S. side of Rose Lake, within the federal wilderness, and apparent snowmobile damage to the famed Stairway Portage between Rose and Duncan Lakes.

Kevin Proescholdt, wilderness and public lands program leader for the Izaak Walton League of America, said at least some of the motor use appears to be traced to the U.S. Border Patrol, which has authority to ignore federal wilderness regulations to patrol the U.S.-Canada border.

But much of the use also appears to be by BWCAW visitors either ignorant of or ignoring the rules, he said, and added the Forest Service seems unable or unwilling to stop it.

"We hope to increase public awareness of the violations in the BWCAW [and] help the Forest Service target its enforcement activities. And we hope to reverse the budget cuts'' that may further reduce enforcement, Proescholdt said.

"We're not sure exactly who's doing it. We believe some of the violations may be misunderstandings of what is legal. Some may be more flagrant recreational use, and some may be coming from the Border Patrol."

Other photographs show snowmobile tracks on parts of Saganaga Lake well outside a narrow corridor where the machines are allowed to travel into Canada. Photographs also appear to show violations of the 1978 BWCAW law requiring those snowmobiles traveling in the corridor be narrower than 41 inches.

More photographs taken in summer appear to show outboard motors larger than the 10 horsepower limit on North Fowl Lake. And the groups listed what they said are multiple violations of so-called towboats on Saganaga Lake -- commercial outfitter boats used to ferry canoe campers farther into the BWCAW to start their trips.

Superior National Forest officials say they are eager to meet with the groups next week but said that illegal motor use is nothing new. The vast nature of the BWCAW, with multiple entry points, makes the area tough to patrol.

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Jim Sanders, Superior National Forest supervisor, said illegal motor use has been a problem since the BWCAW was designated as a wilderness in 1978.

"We try to keep up both our summer and winter patrols up, despite our budget challenges, and we really aren't seeing any increase. If anything there's been some drop off in those snowmobile incursions into the heat of the wilderness. But they still happen,'' Sanders said.

Sanders said that reports of snowmobiling along Canada border lakes, where snowmobiling is legal on the Ontario side of the waterway, concern him less than illegal trips made into the depths of the wilderness.

"We have to triage our enforcement,'' he said. Sanders said at least one snowmobile and ATV group in Cook County is trying to reduce illegal BWCAW incursions by erecting more signs warning riders where not to go.

Kris Reichenbach, Superior National Forest spokeswoman, said some of the snowmobile activity documented "could very well be the Border Patrol and state conservation officers and even our own law enforcement out there.''

Reichenbach said that budget cuts to the forest's wilderness and other programs are forcing staffing reductions, especially among seasonal employees.

"We are going to be able to do less on the ground than we would like to, than we have,'' she said.

The 1.1 million acre BWCAW is the largest wilderness area in the eastern half of the U.S. and the most-used wilderness area in the nation, with about 200,000 visitors each year.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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