From her outfitting business on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), Clare Shirley can't help but think the U.S. Forest Service went too far in reducing permit availability for the upcoming season.

She agrees something had to be done to curtail crowding and resource damage that burgeoned in 2020 and continued last year. But cutting by 13% 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 little reactionary.''

Many veteran wilderness-seekers have voiced support for the recently announced tightening of BWCA permit quotas. In addition, the Forest Service says it has beefed up its team of wilderness rangers to create a larger presence, especially on busy travel routes.

But Shirley and other outfitters say administrators slashed permitting without precision 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 dropped from 14 permits a day to 11. But Shirley said the reduction won't change travel patterns that have evolved over the years into shorter trips, closer to the BWCA's perimeter. Choice campsites in her area will continue to be occupied every night, she said.

She believes the Forest Service would have served the wilderness better by stressing education and enforcement of the rules. In the big picture, she said, 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 lands is never worth celebrating, she said.

“Most of the resource damage and rule violations are being done by a minuscule fraction of BWCA users.”
Jason Zabokrtsky, Ely Outfitting Co. owner

Deb Mark, owner of Seagull Canoe Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail, is well aware of the rise in visitor complaints about campsite scarcity and bad behavior inside the BWCA. In 2020, she issued more than 1,000 Boundary Waters entry permits, a record for her outpost on Seagull Lake.

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

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

Mark said it's nonsensical and perhaps political for the Forest Service to drop the daily entry point quota on Seagull from 13 to 8. By comparison, she said, the daily quota for the Moose Lake entry point 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 deal. Absolutely horrendous.''

Had Forest Service officials asked her, she would have told them that cutting the availability of Seagull permits won't protect the lake from getting hit hard by crowds because lots of paddlers will enter the BWCA at Lake Saganaga, only to paddle south into Seagull.

Mark said the crowding is undeniable, but she views it as transitory. She worries that when COVID-19 runs its course, Seagull's permits won't be replenished. Crowding in the BWCA could be better controlled by substantially raising permit fees, she said.

Canoe country guide Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Co., said it was bad public policy — whether legal or not — for the Forest Service to cut public access without seeking public comment. And like his colleagues on Seagull and Sawbill lakes, he believes the changes were made based largely on anecdotes, without a clear foundation or sound set of standards.

"They could use the same generalized rationale to reduce the quota next year and the year after,'' he said. "Most of the resource damage and rule violations are being done by a minuscule fraction of BWCA users.''

Zabokrtsky termed the 13% reduction in permit availability "extraordinarily significant.'' He said he's not "flat out opposed'' to it, but a move of that magnitude shouldn't be made without listening to the public, including outfitters and wilderness guides who are deeply experienced.

Even during the past two years when visitor traffic surged on the BWCA's perimeter, travel was relatively unchanged further into the backcountry, Zabokrtsky said. It may be possible to ease 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 comprehensive approach from the Forest Service,'' Zabokrtsky said.

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

In three years of surveys over the past 10 years, the agency received nearly 3,000 comments from the public documenting negative experiences due to crowding, disruptive groups, and resource damage to campsites and trails, she said. The Forest Service also moved to reduce quota in response to requests from outfitters and guides, she said.

The problems have included oversized groups, partying, illegal camping, throwing garbage in latrines, falling live trees, leaving fish remains at campsites, washing with soap in lakes and leaving human waste outside of latrines.

"The Forest Service has specific … campsite, trail, portage and social standards designed to protect wilderness character as prescribed by law,'' she said.

And while the Forest Service did, in fact, order the entry quota cuts without formal public review, the power to reduce visitor traffic administratively was established in a lengthy public process that took place in 1993, Gilkeson said.

Her agency acknowledged that the bulk of quota cuts for 2022 involve entry points on the east side of the Boundary Waters. She said the cuts aren't necessarily permanent and additional evaluations are underway that could affect visitor traffic on the west side.

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

She said the Forest Service also will emphasize the availability of campsites outside the BWCA but still within the boundaries of the Superior National Forest. Those backcountry areas were originally incorporated to disperse use outside the Boundary Waters.