Forest Service Protects BWCAW in Chain of Lakes Decision

  • Posted by Dawn Merritt

    by Kevin Proescholdt, IWLA Wilderness and Public Lands Program Director

    On April 18, Superior National Forest Supervisor Jim Sanders announced a decision that protects the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Minnesota from proposed increases in motorboat traffic on the so-called Chain of Lakes. His decision brings to a close a lengthy series of efforts made by the League and other wilderness conservationists since 1993. The decision shows both the tenacity of the wilderness advocates and, finally, a good pro-wilderness decision by the agency to end the dispute.

    The 1.1 million-acre BWCAW, the largest Wilderness east of the Rockies and north of the Everglades, remains the nation’s most heavily-visited Wilderness. Its 1,000+ lakes have attracted anglers for decades, and its protected habitat provides home to a wide range of northern wildlife species, such as moose, black bear, and eastern timber wolf.

    Although the vast majority of visitors travel by canoe, Congress allowed some motorboat traffic to continue on specific lakes when it passsed the 1978 BWCAW Act. But this motorboat use was limited by daily entry point quotas and could not exceed the average annual motorboat use that occurred prior to 1978. After the law passed, the establishment of the motorboat quotas was a highly contentious and public issue that played out over several years in the early 1980s. The League supports the limits on motorized uses in the BWCAW  to protect wilderness character and wildlife alike.

    In 1993, the Forest Service developed a new management plan for the BWCAW. The plan contained many positive changes to better protect the area’s wilderness character. The League supported much of the plan, and Mike Furtman of our McCabe Chapter in Duluth worked particularly hard in the plan’s development. The plan reduced overall visitor quotas (paddlers and motorboaters) to reduce crowding and better protect solitude. It eliminated portage signs and canoe rests (log structures) along the portage trails. The plan also reduced the maximum group size from 10 people to 9 and limited watercraft to no more than 4 per party.

    But a coalition of local resorters, counties, and some outfitters appealed the plan as too restrictive, and the League and other wilderness advocates responded by appealing other portions of the plan as not restrictive enough. Eventually the matter went to federal court.

    In 1999, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals court essentially upheld the plan but ruled in favor of the wilderness advocates on the Chain of Lakes issue. This issue stemmed from the 1978 BWCAW law, which allowed homeowners and resort owners and their guests to be exempt from the motorboat quotas for the general public on “that particular lake.” In implementing this provision, the court ruled that the Forest Service had improperly allowed exempt users to run motorboats not only on their particular lake free of the quotas but also to motor further on chains of lakes that led deeper into the Wilderness free of the quotas. On the Moose Lake Chain, for example, exempt boaters could run boats not only on Moose Lake but also through New Found Lake, on to Sucker Lake, and all the way to Prairie Portage on the Canadian border without needing a permit subject to the quota. This resulted in far more motorboat use on interior lakes than Congress intended.

    But in trying to implement this 1999 ruling, the Forest Service attempted to arbitrarily increase the motorboat quotas for each of the three chains of lakes. Under one of the agency’s proposals, motorboat use would have nearly quintupled on the Moose Lake Chain; on all three chains of lakes combined, motorboat use would have tripled. Wilderness advocates, tenaciously represented again by the Faegre and Benson law firm in Minneapolis, challenged this attempt as arbitrary and capricious and not based on any statistics or data. In February 2006, the appeals court again ruled in favor of the wilderness advocates on the Chain of Lakes.

    Since then, the Forest Service sought but could not find any additional figures or data that could justify an increase in the motorboat quotas. Jim Sanders’ decision in April brought this lengthy issue to a close. The motorboat quotas will remain where they have been, with no more attempts to significantly increase motorboat use in the BWCAW.

    Kevin Proescholdt, IWLA Wilderness and Public Lands Program Director


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