Wilderness Watch Sues Forest Service for Failure to Control Motorized Towboats in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Sunset in the Boundary Waters. Photo: Kevin Proescholdt.

Wilderness Watch has recently sued the U.S. Forest Service in federal district court over the agency’s decades of failures to control commercial motorized towboats in the fabled Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Minnesota as required. We are now awaiting the judge’s ruling on our motion for a preliminary injunction.

Wilderness Watch took the Forest Service to court because the agency has refused to limit commercial motorized towboat use in the Boundary Waters to levels that protect the wilderness, comply with law, and conform with the limits the Forest Service itself pledged to federal courts that it would maintain.

It’s important to keep in mind the special place the BWCAW holds in the National Wilderness Preservation System. It’s the only major lakeland wilderness in the nation, and people come from all over the world to paddle amid its natural beauty and to experience quietness and solitude away from the motorized intrusions of our civilized world. Congress designated the BWCAW as a wilderness to protect its wild character, and management of the area should always lead in that direction. Unfortunately, towboats have been a big exception to that policy.

These towboats in the Boundary Waters are commercially run motorboats that shuttle canoe parties to get a head start on other paddle parties or to avoid paddling long stretches of lake. Though called towboats, they actually carry canoes on overhead racks. The heaviest towboat traffic occurs on the Moose Lake Chain east of Ely and on Saganaga Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail.

Nearly all towboat passengers are canoe parties, equipped to go on wilderness canoe trips. The current litigation does not affect any party’s BWCAW entry permit for 2023. Even if all motorized towboat use were to end, everyone with a permit would still be able to take their canoe trips this summer, with just perhaps a few extra hours of paddling needed on their first day.

In the litigation that followed the release of the 1993 BWCAW Management Plan, one issue challenged by wilderness organizations was the Forest Service’s move to pull the commercial towboats out of the regular motorboat limits. To settle that point of the litigation, the Forest Service pledged to the federal courts it would separately limit the amount of towboat use to the levels that occurred prior to the 1993 plan, which the agency said was 1,342 towboat trips per year across the entire BWCAW.

But the Forest Service never attempted to limit towboat usage to that level and instead allowed it to grow to excessive levels. Forest Service figures show it grew to 4,817 towboat trips in 2019, and 3,815 trips in 2020, making those towboat lakes into wilderness-sacrifice zones. Not surprisingly, the Forest Service now disavows the 1,342 figure, since it has allowed motorized towboat use to nearly triple in recent years.

Further complicating the Forest Service failures, the 1964 Wilderness Act contains a general prohibition on commercial enterprise in designated wildernesses. Commercial services are allowed, but they are limited to what is strictly “necessary.” The Forest Service has never conducted its required analysis to create a necessity-bound limit for towboats. After Wilderness Watch first sued the Forest Service on this issue in 2015, the agency promised to conduct such an assessment for commercial towboats by 2019, yet it still has not done so.

To some extent, this is not surprising. The Forest Service has shown its colors on this issue for decades. Congress intended with the 1978 BWCAW Act to terminate commercial towboats by 1984, as shown by statements in the Congressional Record, reporting in the press, and other sources. Prior to 1978, the Forest Service allowed towboats with unlimited-horsepower outboard motors. The 1978 law phased out the unlimited-horsepower outboards, believing that would end the commercial towboats. But towboaters discovered they could operate with 25-horsepower motors, and the Forest Service allowed towboats to continue, even though it was at odds with the intent of Congress.

After many years, it appears the Forest Service is still more interested in protecting commercial motorized towboats than in protecting the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, as Congress intended. We hope the federal court agrees that the Forest Service must abide by its own standards and limit towboats as required.

Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis serves as the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization. He has worked to protect the BWCAW for nearly 50 years, guided wilderness canoe trips in the area for 10 years, helped pass the 1978 BWCAW Act through Congress and co-authored the definitive history of that effort: Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.