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Upset BWCA outfitters say Forest Service went too far in reducing permits

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Upset BWCA outfitters say Forest Service went too far in reducing permits

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From her outfitting business on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), Clare Shirley can’t help but feel the US Forest Service has gone too far in reducing permit availability for the upcoming season.

She agrees that something needed to be done to reduce the overcrowding and resource damage that exploded in 2020 and continued into the past year. But a 13% cut seems arbitrary and doesn’t prioritize education and enforcement, she said.

“I’m not enthusiastic about it,” said Shirley, whose family operates Sawbill Canoe Outfitters in Tofte. “I think it’s a bit reactionary.”

Many wilderness-seeking veterans have expressed support for the recently announced tightening of BWCA permit quotas. Additionally, the Forest Service says it has bolstered its team of rangers to create a greater presence, especially on busy travel routes.

But Shirley and other providers say administrators have reduced permits without clarification or public involvement in a process that reduces public access to public land.

The Sawbill Lake entry point was hit hard by the cuts. The quota there has been reduced from 14 permits a day to 11. But Shirley said the reduction will not change travel habits that have evolved over the years towards shorter trips closer to the BWCA perimeter. Prime campsites in her area will continue to be busy every night, she said.

She thinks the Forest Service would have served the wilderness better with a focus on education and enforcement. Overall, she says, it’s important not to deter visitors because “to know the BWCA is to love it and to love it is to protect it.”

Cutting access to public land is never worth celebrating, she said.

“Most resource damage and rule violations are caused by a tiny fraction of BWCA users.”

Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Co.

Deb Mark, owner of Seagull Canoe Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail, is well aware of increasing visitor complaints about the scarcity of campsites and poor behavior inside the BWCA. In 2020, it issued more than 1,000 boundary waters entry permits, a record for its outpost on Lake Seagull.

At one point during the spike in visitor traffic, she said, black bears were swimming from campsite to campsite on Seagull Lake to feast on unprotected food caches. The invasion was provoked by ill-equipped newcomers.

But Mark said she was bitter about entry permit cuts which will drop the daily number of groups entering the wilderness from 285 to 248. The bulk of the cuts are at entry points in the regions from Tofte and Gunflint on the east side of the BWCA. The percentage reduction in permits for Seagull alone will be 38.5%, she said.

Mark said it was absurd and possibly political for the Forest Service to reduce the daily entry point quota on Seagull from 13 to 8. In comparison, she said, the daily quota for the entry point entrance to Moose Lake on the west side of the BWCA remains unchanged at 27.

“They didn’t talk to us, they just made their decision,” Mark said. “I think it’s a terrible case. Absolutely horrible.”

If Forest Service officials had asked her, she would have told them that reducing the availability of Seagull permits would not prevent the lake from being hit hard by crowds, as many paddlers would enter the BWCA at Saganaga Lake, to paddle south into Seagull.

Mark said the crowding is undeniable, but she sees it as transient. She fears that when COVID-19 runs its course, Seagull’s permits will not be replenished. Overcrowding in the BWCA could be better controlled by dramatically increasing permit fees, she said.

National canoe guide Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Co., said it was bad public policy — legal or not — for the Forest Service to cut off public access without seeking public comment. And like his colleagues at Seagull and Sawbill lakes, he believes the changes were made largely on the basis of anecdote, with no clear foundation or set of solid standards.

“They could use the same general reasoning to reduce the quota next year and the year after,” he said. “Most resource damage and rule violations are committed by a tiny fraction of BWCA users.”

Zabokrtsky called the 13% reduction in permit availability “extraordinarily significant.” He said he was not “absolutely against it”, but that a decision of this magnitude should not be made without listening to the public, including outfitters and wilderness guides. who are deeply experienced.

Even over the past two years, when visitor traffic has increased on the BWCA perimeter, travel has remained relatively unchanged further out in the hinterland, Zabokrtsky said. It may be possible to reduce congestion on the perimeter by reopening old canoe routes and adding campsites to better disperse paddlers, he said.

“I’d like to see a more holistic Forest Service approach,” Zabokrtsky said.

Joanna Gilkeson, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Duluth, said the agency isn’t considering opening old portages that were closed due to resource damage or were in poor locations. She also said the entry permit reductions were not designed haphazardly. They were chosen based on monitoring conditions at portages and campsites in specific areas.

In three years of investigations over the past 10 years, the agency has received nearly 3,000 comments from the public documenting negative experiences due to overcrowding, disruptive groups, and damage to campsite and trail resources, a- she declared. The Forest Service also decided to reduce quotas in response to requests from outfitters and guides, she said.

Problems have included oversized groups, partying, camping illegally, dumping trash in latrines, knocking down live trees, leaving fish remains in campsites, washing with soap in lakes and leaving human waste outside the latrines.

“The Forest Service has specific … camping, trail, portage and social standards designed to protect wilderness character as required by law,” she said.

And although the Forest Service actually ordered the reduction of entry quotas without formal public review, the authority to administratively reduce visitor traffic was established in a lengthy public process that took place in 1993, said Gilkeson.

His agency acknowledged that the bulk of quota cuts for 2022 involve entry points on the eastern side of boundary waters. She said the cuts aren’t necessarily permanent and additional assessments are underway that could affect visitor traffic on the West Side.

Meanwhile, Gilkeson said, the agency is expanding education and application by adding six full-time rangers and filling seasonal ranger positions with people who will return to those jobs year after year. The increase will place 21 rangers in the wild this year compared to 11 in 2020.

She said the Forest Service will also emphasize the availability of campsites outside of the BWCA but still within the Upper National Forest boundary. These hinterland areas were originally incorporated to disperse use outside of boundary waters.

Upset BWCA outfitters say Forest Service went too far in reducing permits

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