BWCAW Towboat DavidGrantAt the end of September 2015, Wilderness Watch filed a suit in federal district court to force the U.S. Forest Service (FS) to comply with its own regulations limiting commercial towboat use in the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW ) in Minnesota. The FS has allowed towboat use to grow so much that such use may be pushing all motorboat use in the BWCAW to exceed the overall motorboat cap required by Congress.

The towboats are very profitable commercial operations that ferry canoe parties for a fee as far into the BWCAW as motorboat use is allowed, in order to save canoeists time. (Despite their name, towboats typically do not tow canoes, but rather carry them on overhead racks.) But the towboat use often results in making those lakes (or chains of lakes) wilderness sacrifice zones with motorboats buzzing back and forth.

One of the ironies of this case is that the towboat customers typically are wilderness paddlers who want to save time getting to the adjacent Quetico Provincial Park on the Ontario side of the border, which generally has a wilder feel than the BWCAW. But in using the towboat services, these customers degrade the BWCAW through which they zoom.

The 1964 Wilderness Act generally prohibits commercial services in designated Wildernesses, except for a few limited activities like outfitters and guides. The BWCAW is also governed by the 1978 BWCAW Act (P.L. 95-495), which required the FS to implement motorboat use quotas that did not exceed the average actual annual motorboat use in the calendar years 1976, 1977, and 1978.

The Forest Service’s 1993 BWCAW Management Plan established an overall motorboat cap of 10,539 motorboat trips for the entire Wilderness, based on the 1976-78 average use. It limited commercial towboats to their 1992 levels, which the agency later calculated was 1,342 towboat trips per year. Litigation by environmental organizations challenged some aspects of the 1993 plan, including the FS’s proposal to remove towboats from the overall motorboat quota, place all towboat operators under Special Use Permits (SUPs), and cap towboat use at 1992 levels. During the litigation, the agency calculated 1992 use levels and told the court that it would cap the towboat use at 1,342 towboat trips per year.

But since that time, the FS has turned a blind eye to the commercial towboat use and allowed it to grow. Several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and subsequent analysis showed that the FS has allowed use to significantly grow to several times that cap (e.g., 3,879 “boat days” of towboat use—not trips, which would be a higher number—in 2000, 4,555 “boat days” from just one district in 2003, etc.). In 2014, for example, the FS authorized 2,124 commercial towboat trips, but 2,614 towboat trips were actually reported. And these figures come from substantially incomplete report forms.

As part of our more recent research, Wilderness Watch discovered that the FS never set up any system to actually monitor or control the number of towboat trips. The FS relies upon reports submitted by the outfitters after the season is finished as part of the outfitters’ SUP reporting. These after-the-fact reports have provided no way for the FS to track the number of towboat trips during the season, and to end towboat trips when the maximum limit of 1,342 has been reached. As a result, many years since 1993 have witnessed significant violations of the towboat limit, yet the FS has done nothing to correct this problem. We’re confident the federal courts will be able to convince the FS to do so.

Read our Complaint.
Read our Opening Brief.

Photo: David Grant

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