The BWCAW Permit and Visitor Use Report

At the end of July, last year’s visitor use report was published by the USFS. It notes current statistics and trends in visitor numbers and activities. It also provides a unique benchmark which, along with past visitor surveys (and more major studies from 2007, 1992, and 1969) gives a glimpse into the people utilizing the Boundary Waters across history. Here are some of the interesting results.

BWCAW Annual Visitors: The first section of the newest report focuses on visitor numbers, a key issue on many people’s minds during and after the pandemic-era surge in outdoor recreation and subsequent permit reductions. As can be seen in the above chart, overnight visitors during quota season fell to 88952, a 12% drop since the previous year. This number falls cleanly in line with the 13% reduction in permits since the previous year. Our current visitation numbers still remain higher than any year between 2009 and the pandemic. Motor permit usage has dropped slightly also and day-use permits have fallen dramatically, though that is a number which, historically, has varied significantly from year to year.

Visitor Activity: It comes as no surprise that the vast majority of BWCA users are canoeists, and for good reason. On average, when counting up all permits, canoeists make up approximately 70% of BWCA permit holders in any given year, and closer to 75% during the quota season. This far exceeds any other user group. Overnight hikers, for instance, make up about 1% of permits in a given year. Day hiker permits usually exceed overnight permits by some margin. This 1% number for overnight hikers, interestingly enough, is a stat that has stayed more or less consistent. Looking back at our Echoes of ’93 article, the data sampled for that study showed that hikers made up about 1% of BWCA visitors in 1991, very similar to today. It is also interesting to see the clear-cut impact of the pandemic as visitors wanted to get out and couldn’t get canoe permits. The number of overnight hiking permits pulled during quota season nearly doubled to an all-time high of 722. Outside of the pandemic anomaly, the number of overnight hiking permits pulled per year has been steadily increasing over time in no small part due to the consistent and dedicated volunteer crews that have made the trail systems accessible. The BWCA goes into a quiet season during the winter, and the permit numbers are far lower. However, winter usage of the wilderness area for some interest groups has been surging in recent years. Snowshoeing, for example, peaked at 504 permits last year, up from 489 the year before, and up from a decade-long number that consistently held at a mid-to-low 300s or lower for permits pulled. 2011 showed a spike into the 400s, but that number has stayed relatively consistent otherwise. XC ski permits vary wildly from year to year. 2018 was a high peak, and other years vary by the snow conditions.

No-Shows/Cancellations: Another issue at the forefront of discussion has been permit cancellations and no-shows. When permits have been hard to come by, every permit that goes un-used is another group that could have gone on the trip if someone else hadn’t waisted the permit. The interesting thing is that no-show numbers are up dramatically. Since the number started being recorded in 2017, the number of no-shows and cancellations has more than doubled from 1832 no-shows and 4712 cancellations in 2017 to 4277 no-shows and 10095 cancellations last year. These numbers went up in 2019, dropped dramatically during 2020, and went back up for 2021 and 2022. The USFS explained this as “Cancellations slowed in 2022 increasing only 4% over the previous season after significant increases in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, fifteen wildfires, and the unwarranted perception of scarcity. No Shows dropped 45% at the onset of the pandemic in 2020 only to rise again by 30% in 2021 and 28% in 2022. No shows are factored into the distribution and quota system, and expected.” Even still, an increase in no-shows is concerning in an atmosphere where permits are extremely hard to come by in the first place.

And finally, the report wraps up with some user trends. It shows that far and away the majority of permit holders pick up their permits from cooperators, while only about 1/4 or so of users stop by one of the ranger stations. This emphasizes the importance of the camps and outfitters that surround the BWCAW, the role they play in visitor experiences and education, and the lasting impact these experiences have on wilderness care and stewardship. This report seems to be coming out on an annual basis, at least these past few years. These and the larger user surveys provide valuable insight into this incredible wilderness and the thousands of people who travel each year to enjoy this one-of-a-kind place.

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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  1. Tom on August 30, 2023 at 11:10 pm

    Thank you for the summary of the report – interesting! You noted “Overnight hikers, for instance, make up about 1% of permits in a given year.” I’ve wondered if there would be value in more promotion of the BWCAW trails and even adding a few long trails (which would require allocating more money). It seems to me hiking allows more people (I’m thinking dozens not thousands) to enjoy the wilderness without interfering with canoeists. Hikers tend to be minimalists so really all they need is a trail that occasionally goes past a water source and some sort of camping space even far away from a lake. The existing BRT and KEK are good examples. There are plenty of permits available but the trails are under utilized. Maybe it’s just too hot during the summer for long hikes.

    • Mark West on August 31, 2023 at 12:17 pm

      I considered hiking the Kekekabic Trail, but the part I was on was overgrown. The trail is maintained and marked. But the lack of hiking traffic allows the underbrush to grown knee high. It makes it difficult to see where your next step will land. And I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the Forrest Service to trim the trail. I don’t know if the abundance of undergrowth is why people do not hike it. I did not camp on the trail. I was on an overhight paddle on Dissapointment Lake.

    • Riley Smith on September 6, 2023 at 4:33 pm

      Hello Tom. Thank you for your insightful feedback. Hiking in the BWCA has always been a bit of a niche, and I have never really understood why. There are some really amazing trails like the BRT and the Kek (which you mentioned.) Others like the Sioux Hustler, Pow Wow, Herriman, and Angleworm are amazing also. There are also a bunch of small trails which see less support and are very underutilized. Part of the problem is, as you also inferred, summers are tough for hiking. The forests of the BWCA are dense and the bugs can be on another level. Part of it I think is the draw of the area. It is known for its canoeing; that’s what it is managed for and that’s what draws people. In the past, the USFS has been hesitant to allow new trails to open and has, at times, been hesitant to allow for existing trails to continue to be maintained (see the 1993 report article for an example.) In 1993, there was serious consideration in closing the Sioux Hustler. The Kekekabic was at one time abandoned before volunteers made it what it is today. The Pow Wow lost its eastern half and nearly lost its western half after Pagami Creek until volunteers did the nearly-unimaginable and cut thousands upon thousands of trees off of it. In other instances, the forest service has not allowed volunteer crews to reopen trails such as the old Stuart River trail which ran to Lac La Croix. So, with that, the volunteer organizations which cooperate with the forest service are world class. They make the hiking trails possible; these trails wouldn’t exist without them. That said, though hiking numbers have grown some over the years, it’s still small and likely will continue to be so. It’s just not what the BWCA is known for and nearby trails like the SHT and the state parks take higher traffic. In any case, for those in the know, the hiking trails in the BWCA are special and do provide a unique perspective on a place most people encounter from inside a canoe. For what it’s worth, I feel the BRT is the best hiking trail in the state, but it’s also wild, rugged, and challenging. With limited signage and limited trail marking, wilderness trails are not for everyone, but it’s also what makes them truly special!

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