Superior National Forest officials are considering the size, makeup and emphasis of a new group to collaborate on the challenges of managing the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The group is one of the goals of a related analysis of wilderness management that gathered input from, among others, local government officials, outfitters and cooperators who issue permits, conservation groups, and even canoe campers.
Forest Service staff and stakeholders like the ones who participated in the assessment would form the group. The Superior National Forest (SNF) triggered the study when it reached out to the National Center for Environmental Conflict Resolution for help in 2022. The center is part of the Udall Foundation, an independent federal agency. The center recently issued a report, including "considerations" for the SNF.
Some SNF officials and assessment participants told the Star Tribune that the experience with the center bodes well for bridging differences among parties who, in some contexts, have divergent interests in the management of the BWCA.
"We are managing for more than recreation [in the wilderness]," said Ann Schwaller, the SNF's longtime BWCA program manager. "That's not always an easy thing to discuss."
Some of the conclusions in the center's 39-page report, on the SNF's website, are central to visitor use and to good governance. In a follow-up statement, the SNF emphasized that some of the recommendations already are in place.
Said Schwaller: "This is an opportunity for all the folks who call us to actually hear each other and what they have to say. ... Sometimes I think there is this perception that we don't talk to them and their voices aren't heard."
Dave Seaton, who runs Hungry Jack Canoe Outfitters near Grand Marais, was glad to lend his voice. He also said the SNF seems sincere about wanting input — in contrast to a long-held perception by some people that outside voices about recreational management aren't taken seriously.
"People have felt like their thoughts and ideas were ignored," he said. "I think [the Superior National Forest] is trying really, really hard to make sure that people understand that, no, we are seriously interested in understanding not only what you think but why you think that. That is really nice to see."
The breadth of the report reflects the variety of opinions about managing the BWCA and the complex job before the SNF, mandated to preserve and limit impact to the wilderness while its number of visitors increases.
Here are some highlights from the report:
A desire to see management changes
Some participants told the center that the SNF needs to be more transparent about its decision-making process. There was confusion among some outfitters and business owners about why quota permits were reduced at certain entry points and the dearth of data analysis. Some outfitters have long stated that the reduction in permits unfairly limits access and their business, while the SNF said its recent reduction was prompted by COVID-fueled overcrowding and irresponsible behavior.
Seaton said making management plan changes is long overdue because the current BWCA visitor has changed since the legislation that created the wilderness was established decades ago.
For one, there are more visitors than ever, and how the wilderness is used has changed, he said. Some assessment participants said canoe campers are going to the same sites and ones closer to entry points. Nearly 151,000 people visited the BWCA in 2022 after a two-year spike during the pandemic when there were about 166,000 visitors, according to the SNF.
"The demand and desire for people to be out there is different. It's great and a wonderful thing, but we need to create a situation where that is manageable and sustainable," he added.
Engaging and educating visitors
In the context of crowding, the center recommended the SNF consider educating visitors about under-utilized campsites and alternative routes. The SNF said such direction is contrary to "the spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act and could result in resource damage to these locations."
Participants suggested the Forest Service produce more up-to-date educational online videos and other material, also with the goal of more effectively educating visitors about leave-no-trace principles. The Forest Service directs visitors through the reservation site — recreation.gov — and the SNF website, among other platforms, to detailed information about trip planning, permit requirements and wilderness rules and regulations. The BWCA trip planning guide, for example, is updated every other year, Schwaller said.
Involve the tribes
Several participants suggested that Minnesota Native tribes should be more involved in management of the BWCA and the forest — their treaty lands — and that the SNF should act on connections like the memorandum of understanding signed May 2 between the agency, the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, and the Fond du Lac and Grand Portage bands of Lake Superior Chippewa. The Forest Service acknowledged the memorandum's "framework of cooperation."
The SNF invited tribes to participate in the assessment, but they declined. "Some tribal representatives," the report said, "shared that tribal governments want to ensure that they do not diminish their tribal sovereignty and government-to-government consultation requirements."
Forest Service spokesperson Joy VanDrie said the agency meets with the tribes monthly, and that communication is ongoing.
"Just because they are not listed doesn't mean they are not kept completely up to speed on where things are at," she added. "They are always invited to the table."
The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, one of the participants and a wilderness advocate since 1976, backed the idea of engaging tribes more. "This could mark the exciting expansion of the conservation and wilderness narrative."
Peter Marshall, the group's communication manager, said the assessment has value.
"Are there challenges? Yes," he added. "But, though there are numerous challenges the report presents, it would be wrong to think that the Boundary Waters is bogged down in intractable issues."
Like some other stakeholders, the Friends have advocated for an updated BWCA management plan.
"It's important to remember that in many ways it works and there is a lot of kudos that should be given to the Forest Service both for reaching out to new groups and trying to figure out how to resolve some of these longstanding conflicts and for managing the most visited wilderness area in the country," Marshall said. "It's a balance between wilderness and visitors, and that is a hard thing to do."
Schwaller, the BWCA manager, added that she believes the agency is "coming from a positive collaborative place already. We might be more aligned than [stakeholders] think."