Motorized towboats in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) have been under fire or review for much of the past eight years, with no end in sight.

The canoe-toting jon boats have had a place in Boundary Waters excursions since at least the 1950s, but members of the environmental group Wilderness Watch want them outlawed or curtailed. In the group's view, the 25-horsepower shuttles on designated routes degrade the stillness of an ancient and priceless ecosystem — a place that should be "uninhibited by humanity's expanding machinations.''

But as Wilderness Watch pursues its second towboat lawsuit since 2015, BWCA outfitters and the U.S. Forest Service are fighting back.

“People on the side of continued use of towboats haven't been raising enough hell.”
Willy Vosburgh, towboat operator

Lawyers for the Forest Service this week won a legal skirmish to deny an all-out injunction against towboat usage, as requested by Wilderness Watch. In a ruling Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel, she disclosed that the two sides "couldn't find any middle ground'' when she ordered them to negotiate a towboat trip limit while the litigation continues.

"The Forest Service insisted that it was not feasible to place any upper limit on towboat trips at this time,'' Brasel wrote. Meanwhile, BWCA supervisors will get a hearing next month at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis to have the lawsuit dismissed. As the case unfolds, a coalition of outfitters, other business owners and individuals "intrinsically tied to the BWCA'' has begun to campaign for the preservation of towboats.

In a press release this week, the coalition said new restrictions on towboat availability would ultimately limit access to the wilderness by all users. That's because towboats currently help disperse groups of visitors to less crowded locations. If the shuttles are eliminated, the group says perimeter areas already jammed with canoe groups would worsen and the Forest Service would adjust by reducing entry permit quotas.

"The constant attempts of special interest groups and individuals to limit access to all users is selfish and elitist,'' the coalition's press release said. "Those with other viewpoints, including the U.S. Forest Service, have been bullied far too long by these extreme views.''

The coalition includes the Ely Outfitters Association, Gunflint Trail Towboat Outfitters and Conservationists With Common Sense.

Willy Vosburgh, an Ely native who is one of 18 certified BWCA towboat operators, said towboats help all types of visitors, including people who can't physically paddle across long distances to enjoy more remote areas. He said some of his customers are able-bodied wilderness purists who don't have the luxury of time.

With the help of shuttles, they can take three-day canoe trips as far away as Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario by paying for a long, motorized tow across the Moose Lake chain. The shuttles take less than 30 minutes each way. Paddling the route to and from the dropoff point would consume the equivalent of one whole day, he said.

"People on the side of continued use of towboats haven't been raising enough hell,'' Vosburgh said.

The press release urges supporters of towboats to contact their elected officials with the message that current regulations are reasonable.

Deb Mark and Dave Truehart of Seagull Outfitters operate the largest towboat service on Lake Saganaga, off the Gunflint Trail. They said Judge Brasel's denial of the injunction request by Wilderness Watch was a breakthrough of common sense, giving outfitters and other members of their coalition time to strategize.

"The Ely side and Gunflint side are going to try to get together to create a solid voice,'' Mark said. "It's just so important to keep people dispersed'' to avoid further congestion at campsites, portages and entry points.

Truehart said canoeists who cross Saganaga on their own are in for seven or eight hours of paddling, potentially in serious wind and challenging waves. Meanwhile, they'll be sharing the water with motorized fishing boats in view of a series of cabins on the Canadian side.

"We only tow where other motorboats already are allowed,'' Truehart said. "They are barking up the wrong tree when they say the towboats are stopping the peace and quiet when really towboats are helping people get into the peace and quiet.''

Judge Brasel, in her decision this week, said the case is complicated by a muddle of data on towboat usage and whether the shuttles exceed established limits. Wilderness Watch asserts the Forest Service has let towboat usage expand in clear violation of the limits, but the agency disagrees.

“The court very clearly recognized what a mess the Forest Service has made of monitoring and limiting towboats.”
Kevin Proescholdt, Wilderness Watch director

The judge wrote in her decision this week that the Forest Service provided a sampling of "reported" towboat trips in the Boundary Waters. The numbers ranged from 2,550 trips in 2012 to 4,817 trips in 2019, but the Forest Service contended that consistent tracking of over-and-back towboat trips did not begin until the 2015 season. The judge's decision said all season-ending trip numbers exceeded a limit of 1,342 towboat trips per season that the Eighth Circuit concluded was set in a Forest Service wilderness plan, but how "trips'' have been counted over the years is in dispute.

Although Judge Brasel was unwilling to let the pendulum swing to an outright ban against BWCA towboat service, she did note in her 27-page opinion that towboat usage potentially can go "too far,'' even to the point of "irreparable harm'' against canoeists who seek solitude in the nation's most-visited wilderness area.

"How much towboat use is too much?'' the judge wrote.

Ultimately, the lawsuit could answer that question as the Forest Service continues to analyze towboat usage in the face of hard questioning by Wilderness Watch. One thing the Forest Service asserts without confusion is that the number of businesses operating towboats has dropped since 1992 — from 31 then to 24 in 2019. Total towboats in operation over that period fell from 91 to 75.

Kevin Proescholdt, conservation director for Wilderness Watch, said his group is disappointed in the court's decision not to impose an immediate limit on towboats, but is confident it will prevail.

"The court very clearly recognized what a mess the Forest Service has made of monitoring and limiting towboats,'' he said. "Although the court declined to fashion stricter restrictions out of that mess for now, the order states clearly that forcing the agency to limit towboats may be appropriate after our lawsuit moves forward."