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Forest service cuts off access to BWCA to relieve overcrowding

Some 23,000 fewer people will be allowed entry into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) this year with a 13% reduction in the availability of entry permits, the US Forest Service said Thursday.

The quota reduction – the first significant change in access to the BWCA since 2011 – aims to address complaints of overcrowding and resource damage that took off in 2020 and continued last year. The increase in visits has coincided with the global boom in outdoor recreation linked to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Forest Service first signaled its intention to reduce entry quotas about a month ago. On Thursday, the agency released a list of specific permit reductions at 23 launch sites. In total, the number of permits available will increase from around 285 per day to 248. The average group size is four people per permit.

Joanna Gilkeson, spokesperson for Duluth’s Office of the Forest Service, said the bulk of the logging is on the eastern side of the 1.1 million acre wilderness, in the Tofte and Gunflint districts. In addition to limiting access, the agency said it has hired a few more rangers to patrol the BWCA to enforce regulations and educate campers on the BWCA’s no-trace resource policy.

“These changes focus on the areas where we have received the most feedback from visitors and outfitters,” said Gilkeson. “We are using all the tools at our disposal to manage the wilderness so that it remains the amazing place people love to visit.”

The popular Lake Sawbill entry point near Tofte is an example of the redesigned quota system. Last year, the Forest Service offered 14 canoe licenses per day at the launch site. During this year’s quota season, which runs from May 1 to September 30, Sawbill’s canoe traffic will be drastically reduced by three fewer permits per day.

Other water access points cut off by more than one permit per day include Seagull Lake, Saganaga Lake, Trout Lake, Brule Lake, Little Indian Sioux River North, and Kawishiwi Lake. Another change will drop previously unrestricted access to the BWCA’s Brule Lake Trail and Eagle Mountain Trail. From this year, the Forest Service will impose a quota of one entry permit per day, per trail.

Gilkeson said the worst overcrowding had happened on lakes near the BWCA perimeter which were popularized on social media. Visitors to these places complained about the intense competition for campsites, damage to campsites and trails, congestion at portages, loud music and unruly behavior.

Many BWCA veterans are happy with the reduction in quotas, hoping it will preserve the solitude they seek in the wilderness. Some outfitters, but not all, objected, saying the reduced availability would increase frustration during the reservation process. In addition, the increased scarcity of entry permits will expose fewer people to canoeing country, they said.

Permit reservations for the 2022 quota season will be available starting at 9 a.m. on January 26. Visitors are encouraged to book their trip online at or by calling 1-877-444-6777. Forest managers encourage future paddlers to have at least three travel options in mind before attempting to reserve a permit.

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