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BWCA annual visitor use declines

The Forest Service has released the annual Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Permit and Visitor Use Report for 2018-2022.

Numbers for 2022 dropped an average of 9%.

“Our wilderness rangers, volunteers, and partners work hard year-around to preserve wilderness character and ensure that over 150,000 visitors from across the nation have the opportunity to experience the BWCAW,” said Ann Schwaller, Wilderness Program Manager for the Superior National Forest.

 Highlights to note over the past five years:

Visitor use returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2022 with a 9% decrease in annual visitors over the previous year. In 2022, total visitors dropped to 150,842 finally ending the Covid 19 surge. Visitor use swelled to 165,918 visitors in 2020, an increase of 16%, then capped out at 166,374 in 2021. The return to previous use levels is beneficial for the wilderness restoration efforts and to better preserve wilderness character moving forward.

In 2022, 93% of all visitors traveled to the Wilderness between May 1 and Sept. 30 during mandatory quota season. Only 7% of visitors traveled to the BWCAW from Oct. 1 - April 30.

Overnight paddling continues to be the highest in overnight use, still slightly higher in 2022 than 2018 and 2019 at 21,097. Paddle also maintains highest use in self-issued permits.

Day use motorboat permits exempted from the quota (exempt permits) increased substantially compared to 2018-2021.

Quota permits (required to enter the BWCAW May 1 – Sept. 30) in 2022 total mandatory permits issued for the BWCAW dropped returning to pre-pandemic levels not seen since 2019. Travel to Quetico Provincial Park resumed via the BWCA as the Canadian border reopened to U.S. citizens carrying Remote Area Border Crossing permits. The return to previous use levels is beneficial in protecting social and physical resources.

Cancellations slowed in 2022 increasing only 4% over the previous season after significant increases in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, fifteen wildfires, and the unwarranted perception of scarcity. No shows dropped 45% at the onset of the pandemic in 2020 only to rise again by 30% in 2021 and 28% in 2022. No shows are factored into the distribution and quota system related to campsite availability and are expected.

Data for BWCAW permits varies from year to year. Variances can be due to changes in weather, drought, floods, blowdown, wildfires, the economy, public health crises such as Covid 19, Canadian border closures, crowding, and even the timing of insects hatching.

Quota data obtained from reservations made through is more accurate than self issued permit data. It is the visitor’s responsibility to fill out the self issued permit accurately to reflect the dates, location, and type of activity engaged in during a visit to the BWCA. However, self-issued permits are not always filled out accurately or completely, which is why self-issued permit data is not as accurate as quota permit data.

The BWCAW is a unique area located in the northern third of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. Over 1,098,000 acres in size, it extends nearly 150 miles along the international boundary adjacent to Voyageurs National Park and Canada’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks.

The BWCAW contains over 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails and almost 2,000 designated campsites. This area was set aside in 1926 to preserve its primitive character and made a part of the national wilderness preservation system in 1964 with subsequent wilderness legislation in 1978.

The BWCAW Act of 1978 added more acreage and specific management direction with the purpose to preserve, manage, enhance, and restore the area.

The BWCAW allows visitors to travel and camp in the spirit of those that came before them centuries ago. The entire BWCA lies within tribal ceded territory, which reserved the right, among other things, of tribal members to hunt, fish, trap, and gather within the territory for their livelihood in perpetuity.

The report is now available on the Superior National Forest’s website on the ‘BWCAW Research, Publications and Articles’ forest web page (click on link to…Permit & Visitor Use Report 2018-2022).

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