Skip to main content

Towboat usage in BWCAW could potentially be halted for this year

by Parker Loew

The environmental advocacy group Wilderness Watch has gone to federal court to block all BWCAW towboat usage as soon as the ice goes off this year.

The request for a preliminary injunction by the wilderness advocacy group is currently in the hands of a federal judge in Minneapolis who will decide how to proceed.

Wilderness Watch believes wilderness laws are being violated, and the Forest Service isn’t doing its part to stop it.

“I think that if they stop the towboats while the lawsuit is happening it could be a multiyear stoppage,” said Ginny Nelson of Spirit of the Wilderness outfitting. “All the outfitters in Ely and on the Gunflint have thousands of customers already scheduled to take trips with towboats.”

The number of people who would be impacted is in the thousands, according to Nelson.

“The outfitters in Ely and the Gunflint all combined have thousands of customers already scheduled to take trips with towboat shuttles,” said Nelson.

The impact is greater than groups like Wilderness Watch believe it to be.

“Stopping the towboat shuttles limits the access to a variety of people with different abilities. Some enjoy one day trips, some multi-day canoe trips, some on day motorboat fishing trips. Some people don’t have as much time or can add more days to their vacation,” said Nelson.

Shuttle prices vary but average around $32 per person one way.

“It’s not the most expensive part of the trip but it can save you a day’s worth of paddling if you get a tow in and out,” said Nelson.

Towboat operations exist mainly on the Moose Lake chain in the Ely area, including people entering Quetico Park.

Other towboat shuttle routes include Snowbank and Burntside lakes in Ely and Saganaga off the Gunflint Trail.

Nelson told a story where a customer was able to send a message to get a tow to come out and make it home before his grandmother passed away.

“There’s a lot of ways towboats are used, not just dispersing people,” said Nelson.

Towboat numbers are down by one-third from 1992. There were 91 towboats then and 63 now.

“Just look at the businesses like Wilderness Outfitters and Canadian Border Outfitters that are no longer here. Those two had 10 boats that are no longer running on the lakes,” said Nelson.

The economic impact to Ely could likely be over $1 million according to Nelson.

“If outfitters can’t run towboat shuttles, the whole town will feel the impact.”

In 1978, Congress passed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, which prohibited all motorboat usage within the wilderness except on a few specific lakes.

Congress set a usage cap on the number of motorboats able to be used on these lakes. They got this number by taking the average annual motorboat use in 1976, 1977, and 1978 for each lake.

Congress put the Forest Service in charge of counting and allocating motorboat usage in these lakes in addition to making sure quotas are met.

Wilderness Watch alleges the way the Forest Service is counting and allocating motorboat usage is inappropriate and claims gross negligence in managing this issue.

They want to phase out motorized towboat usage as they believe it significantly degrades the wilderness experience on several large lakes in the BWCAW.

The environmental advocacy group filed a lawsuit earlier this year to make the Forest Service enforce a new set of limits for towboat usage in the BWCAW, but until the lawsuit is settled, they want to see all towboat usage halted.

The injunction is strongly opposed by the U.S. Forest Service and many who run businesses in and around the BWCAW.

If the injunction was to pass it would affect many who have already planned trips into the wilderness for 2023, not to mention the livelihood of those who use the towboats in their business.

Last year was a particularly windy summer, and Nelson often had to use towboats to rescue people off lakes.

“Last summer was very windy, and we got tons of calls from people stuck on Snowbank that needed a tow,” Nelson said. “Having a towboat is a safety issue.”

Many, including the owner of LaTourell’s resort Bob LaTourell, believe the motorized towboats enhance the wilderness experience.

“If you eliminate or minimalize towboats usage, there will be crowding issues. They won’t be able to distribute people like they used to. It will be much more cramped around certain boat launches,” said LaTourell.

He explained how the towboats let people get further into the BWCA and allow them to see more of the wilderness than they otherwise would have.

Moose Lake, the lake Bob LaTourell’s resort is on, is a popular BWCA entry point and has been at the forefront of Wilderness Watch’s litigation.

Moose Lake was one of the lakes exempt from the motor ban when Congress passed the BWCAW Act in 1978.

Due to poor bookkeeping and unclear guidelines regarding motorboats owned by houses and resorts on the lake, the usage cap on the annual number of motorboats on Moose Lake is ambiguous.

According to Wilderness Watch’s lawyers, the annual motorboat cap for Moose Lake should be 2,612 in total. In 2018, the most recent year in which data is available, 5,736 motorboat entries were recorded. 2,369 of those motorboats were not towboats, however, but private motorboats.

“They never used to count the houses and resorts as part of the usage cap. When they say they are exceeding the statutory cap, it’s not even close,” said LaTourell. “They shouldn’t be talking about anything yet, because they aren’t even close to the right number.”

Wilderness Watch points out private motorboats on the lakes are regulated with daily and weekly quota systems. The towboats are not and can take as many trips as they want because they do not need permits.

The 1978 BWCAW Act did not distinguish between private motorboats and commercial towboats. Wilderness Watch says the entry limits are supposed to apply to all use cases, not just motorized towboats.

Another issue confusing matters in the BWCA is the oftentimes ambiguous borders where one lake ends and another begins.

“We have already been screwed over,” LaTourell said. “There are fewer permits for the narrows than there used to be. They (Forest Service) told us we shouldn’t need permits for that part of the lake.”

The narrows he refers to are the thin stretch of water connecting Moose Lake to Newfound Lake. The motor usage on these two lakes is different, but the boundary between the two isn’t clear.

“Wilderness Watch and its members presume the only way to experience the BWCAW is the way they want to experience the BWCAW,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Fuller wrote in a recent court filing.

Wilderness Watch claimed urgency in their court filings by saying if the injunction isn’t granted before the 2023 paddling season opens, visitors to the BWCAW would have their connections to the wilderness disrupted.

Though the Forest Service said in a court filing after the injunction that Wilderness Watch can not claim urgency in needing to stop all towboat usage, the decision now lies in the hands of a federal judge in Minneapolis.

Sign up for News Alerts

Subscribe to news updates