Crowding and natural resource disturbance in parts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) have prompted the U.S. Forest Service to cut back on the number of entry permits available to paddlers in 2022.
Susan Catton, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said Friday that the agency will specify the reduction sometime before visitors start reserving permits on Jan. 26. Not every BWCA entry point will see a reduction in permit availability, she said, because the cutbacks are aimed at areas suffering from overuse.
"There are just too many people" in some areas of the wilderness, Catton said.
She said a surge in visitor traffic that started in 2020 continued last summer with additional complaints of campsite competition, congestion at canoe portages, noise, soil erosion, garbage left behind, camping at undesignated sites and cutting of live trees at campsites.
Ginny Nelson of Spirit of the Wilderness Outfitting in Ely said the change will be beneficial to the wilderness but could block would-be paddlers who don't plan ahead. People who reserve a permit early in 2022 should still be able to book a trip to their liking, she said.
"I think that booking a trip early is going to be a necessity," Nelson said.
She and other outfitters learned of the coming change this week in phone calls from Forest Service officials. On the west side of the BWCA served by entry points around Ely, the new restrictions will erase about 1,350 opportunities to camp during the five months when permits are required, Nelson said.
"We were told 7.5 permits a day are going away, which is significant," she said. The fraction relates to entry points that are losing only one permit every other day. Many more entry points in the Tofte and Gunflint regions of the BWCA also will see a drop in permit availability.
Under one model considered this week by the Forest Service, overnight paddling and hiking permits would be reduced by 13% throughout the reservation season that runs from May 1 through Sept. 30. Under that scenario, the number of available permits would be cut from 285 permits per day to 248. If that were the case, an estimated 23,000 fewer people would enter the BWCA next year based on the average of four people per group.
The Forest Service is expected to disclose in January how many people visited the Boundary Waters in 2021. In 2020, 165,918 people visited the wilderness, up 16% from 2019 and up 10% from the 2016-2019 average, the agency reported. The total number of permits issued jumped 22% from 2019.
The Forest Service began its BWCA quota system in the 1970s to protect the wilderness from overuse. Changes to permitting happen every couple of years.