A Wilderness of the People – The 2023 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Situational Assessment

The June 28th USFS newsletter contained the results of a six-month-long survey with confidential feedback from 100 individuals representing a wide scope of BWCAW users, affiliated businesses, nonprofits, and managing agencies. Their survey delved deep into the complexities of managing America’s busiest, and often one of the most complicated and controversial, wilderness areas. The results covered topics such as what healthy managing collaboration looks like, how challenges are faced and how user feedback is applied to those challenges, communication, and educational opportunities, and a wide variety of other issues. The report can be read in its entirety through the USFS website; it’s an insightful read. This week’s article contains some of our takeaways and the fascinating conclusions to this study.

Section 1: Exploring Possibilities for Collaboration

In light of past and current BWCA controversies, the first section of the report focuses on the intention of these discussions. Some contributors noted feelings of lingering distrust in the purpose behind the survey. With that in mind, the first section of the report outlines the priorities of the survey as well as topics that were found worthy of further input and discussion. “They [survey responders] were most concerned about inclusive representation, transparency of the process, and the ability to understand how information developed during a collaborative process would be utilized by SNF, or if it is not used then explain why.” and “There would need to be some way to understand how the information will be used in relation to a decision-making process… Have some guarantee that the information will at least be utilized. And if it’s not being used, then explain why a different decision was made.” It is clear in the report that those who contributed to this report wanted their words heard and applied to the management of this popular and complicated wilderness area.

Section 2: Perspectives on BWCAW Management


In regards to visitor use of the BWCAW, “Many participants believe the typical visitor’s goals have changed over the years from seeking multiple-day trips deeper into the BWCAW, to shorter trips where they can have easy access to civilization and maintain connectivity as needed.” and “Participants observed that new visitors to the BWCAW during this period were less familiar with being in a wilderness area and were not well prepared, for example relying on cell phones in a place that does not always have cell phone service.” These sentiments have been fairly widespread as cooperators continue to wrestle with the lasting impacts of the pandemic on outdoor recreation and how permit reductions post-pandemic have altered that process. After a discussion on campsite impact, the conversation turned towards a topic on many people’s minds: the permit reduction from last year. The general assessment was “Some Cooperators, Outfitters and other business owners feel the quota reductions was the wrong approach. They noted that the decision process was unclear and not based on statistical analysis. There is confusion around why quota reductions occurred at certain entry points and whether it was due to overuse and damage.” One of the more poignant lines in the report followed in saying “Fundamentally it comes down to this is public lands and reducing access to public lands should be a last resort and not a first step.” An intriguing insight as the permit reduction, at times, left some cooperators feeling left out of important discussions or ignored in policy making. Discussion continued into the permit retrieval system “recreation.gov.” Opinions are obviously varied as modern, complicated, web-based systems leave open doors for perceived unfairness, system abuse, or undue hurdles for certain user groups.

Past the permit discussion, the topic shifted toward the ever-heated issue of motor use. The current controversy is primarily focused on the future rules governing towboats. The opinions are obviously strong on either side from “Some voiced strong concerns on motorboat use because it is not “primitive’ and does not offer ‘solitude.'” to the cooperators’ concerns “As a commercial business it’s hard to put energy into a towboat business when the threat of NEPA and SNF decisions may reduce towboat use further.” It’s a delicate issue.

Section 3: Communication and Education


Moving into opportunities for improvement, one issue was the overuse of campsites, a long-standing discussion that was majorly covered in the 1993 management plan update. Conversations also revolved around the popular issues of visitor dispersal and how to move visitors further into the wilderness area and off of the most popular routes. Other opportunities focused on many of the previously discussed issues.


One of the more unique discussions in the challenges section revolved around conversations with the forest service. Who do users talk to when they have issues? Other contributors voiced concerns about user access to permits and information and how the system is structured (or not structured) to deliver that fairly. There was an in-depth discussion on the role of cooperators and volunteer crews in how they contribute to Forest Service land management. One cooperator expressed how “We want to be seen as a resource, but the Forest Service continues to view us as having an economic agenda. A smaller group of cooperators could assist in helping to manage the different types of users for example.” The challenges section concluded with discussions about how users are educated prior to their wilderness trip. Mid-pandemic use saw a surge in LNT violations, and the lingering question is why. Was it a user mindset? Is it part of a larger trend, now amplified? One moving quote from a participant states “In the past it was kind of like the video police… Went from accusations of outfitters and cooperators having to show people, even if tiring, to the opposite extreme. We are worried about people making these decisions on their own. Product is not the same and user is not the same. Guests are coming for shorter times than they used to and not moving so much. Want easy access and one base camp. The easy fix by Forest Service was to cut the permits but that is not the answer to address this ‘soft laziness’ by the public.

Section 4: Conclusion

The conclusion of the discussions found that one of the strongest messages from across the user spectrum was that management decisions should be transparent and conversations, such as the one in this document, should be followed up with intentional action. The running theme is that people connected to this wilderness want to be a bigger part of managing it. As the report concluded, “The National Center for Environmental Conflict Resolution recommends Superior National Forest move forward with forming a collaborative group or other forms of sustained engagement to strengthen communication and to better coordinate on specific issues that might benefit from shared learning.”

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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