Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is one of the most storied wilderness areas in the nation. Lying along the Canadian border in northeastern Minnesota, the BWCAW is the only major lakeland wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System. At 1.1 million acres in size, the Boundary Waters is the largest wilderness east of the Rockies and north of Florida’s Everglades. Wildly popular, the BWCAW is the most heavily visited area in the entire national wilderness system.

Wilderness Between the Cracks
The League and several allied conservation organizations spent a year documenting motor use violations in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Our 20-page report, "Wilderness Between the Cracks," summarizes our findings with more than 20 color photographs. The report identifies problem areas where illegal motor use has occurred, and underscores the need to reverse the planned cuts to the budget of Superior National Forest.

Conservation History
The League helped forge the BWCAW’s first wilderness protection in 1926, when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture designated 1,000 square miles of Superior National Forest as wilderness, the nation’s second such area. The area was included in the 1964 Wilderness Act, but this law singled out the Boundary Waters for continued logging and motorboat use, making it a wilderness in name but not necessarily in management. Congress removed this compromise language and added greater wilderness protections in 1978 with the BWCA Wilderness Act, a measure strongly promoted by the League.

Current Threats
Though the 1978 law strengthened wilderness protections for the Boundary Waters, those protections are far from complete, and threats continue to arise that could damage the area’s wilderness character.

South Fowl Snowmobile Trail: The League and several allies filed suit in federal district court to block the Forest Service from building a new snowmobile trail at the edge of the wilderness. This trail would traverse a narrow bench along a cliff face just barely outside the wilderness boundary, overlooking a lake that lies within the BWCAW. Snowmobiles would be seen and heard from within the wilderness.

Chain of Lakes Motorboat Quotas: In a long-standing legal case, wilderness advocates continue to challenge the U.S. Forest Service’s attempt to triple motorboat quotas in the BWCAW on three chains of lakes. The three chains include the Moose Lake Chain, the Farm Lake Chain, and the Seagull River-Saganaga Lake Chain. In the most recent court action, the federal court ruled that the Forest Service acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in trying to justify its attempts to increase motorboat use within the BWCAW. (The 1978 BWCAW Act required motorboat quotas to cap the level of motorboat use within the wilderness.)

Off-Road Vehicles: The League is concerned about the impact of off-road vehicles (ORVs) on wilderness areas and critical fish and wildlife habitat and migration routes. In this region, the U.S. Forest Service proposed a forest-wide travel management plan for the Superior National Forest. The League is working with other conservation groups to oppose parts of the plan that increase ORV access to wilderness areas.

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