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Forest Service reducing permits for Boundary Waters

Move is hoped to reduce overcrowding, cut back on natural resource damage.

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A live tree cut down by campers last summer. Superior National Forest officials say they are reducing the number of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness permits available in 2022 to reduce problems in the wilderness. Contributed / U.S. Forest Service

Superior National Forest officials say they will reduce the number of people allowed into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness next year after throngs of visitors caused overcrowding and damaged the natural resources in 2020 and 2021.

The move — reducing the number of permits issued to groups for some specific entry points — is hoped to help reduce the recurring problems that seemed to worsen during the pandemic.

Officials said they will focus on the 24 busiest entry points of the total 74 entry points in the wilderness.

The reductions won’t be drastic, probably one to two fewer permits daily for the busiest entry points, said Susan Catton, a spokesperson for the Superior National Forest.

Catton said the final permit numbers are still being decided and will be made public sometime before 2022 BWCAW permits go up for reservations Jan. 26 at 9 a.m.

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Catton said forest officials have been working with businesses around the BWCAW, such as outfitters, for about 18 months on how to deal with the problems.

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“We’ve been getting comments from the public, thousands of comments over the past decade or so from visitors who say they have seen their quality of the experience decline because of overcrowding and resource degradation,’’ Catton said, adding that the Forest Service is also working to add more wilderness rangers to provide hands-on enforcement and education to people in the wilderness.
Permits are required to canoe into the BWCAW from May through September and are limited in most areas to spread out use across the 1.1 million-acre federal wilderness.

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Campers not only extended a campfire outside of its fire pit, but also cut down and tried to burn live trees at this campsite last summer. Contributed / U.S. Forest Service

More than 165,000 people visited the BWCAW in 2020, a 16% jump from the previous year and the most in at least a decade, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Visitorship in recent years had averaged around 150,000. The number of permits issued jumped from around 25,000 to more than 30,000.

Final visitation numbers for 2021 are not yet available, but several businesses that issue permits and many visitors reported that much of the summer was just as crowded as the year before, except for weeks when the wilderness was shut down due to wildfire danger.

The problem wasn’t just more visitors but also many new visitors who either didn’t know or didn’t care about the wilderness ethic of “leave no trace.” Some campers cut down live trees, expanded fire rings, didn’t dispose of human waste properly and left large amounts of trash behind. Forest Service officials at one point said they were seeing "unprecedented" natural resource damage.

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It’s expected that the reopening of the Quetico Provincial Park wilderness just across the border from the BWCAW may help alleviate some of the congestion on the Minnesota side. The Quetico was off-limits to U.S. residents during the summers of 2020 and 2021 due to pandemic border restrictions and, even when the border opened in mid-August, closed due to wildfire danger.

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