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Towboats safe for 2023

A towboat on a trailer at Spirit of the Wilderness.

by Parker Loew

On Tuesday, Judge Nancy E. Brasel denied Wilderness Watch’s motion for a preliminary injunction aimed at banning towboats in the BWCAW for the 2023 season.

Individuals who rely on the busy summer season in the BWCA for their livelihoods were able to breath a sigh of relief, even if the reprieve is temporary.

“It’s good news to hear that the injunction was denied because we are right in the middle of the season,” said Ginny Nelson of Spirit of the Wilderness outfitting. “If we had to stop towboat usage, it would put us in a very tough spot.”

According to Nelson, the number of people who would have been impacted by the injunction would have been in the thousands.

“We’ve already got lots of reservations for towboat shuttles, so it’s nice to know that we don’t have to worry anymore,” she said.

Most of the outfitters held a meeting with each other to discuss their options if the injunction was to pass, but many didn’t know what they would do.

“We didn’t make any preparations for if the injunction passed, we just were really hoping that the towboats would keep running,” said Nelson.

While towboats wont be banned for the 2023 season, the court ordered the Forest Service to continue the moratorium on new special-use permits for towboat operations until the litigation concludes.

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 had recently 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.

Towboats also provide a blanket of safety for those who travel into the BWCAW.

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.

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

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.”

The injunction brought forward by Wilderness Watch was also strongly opposed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Though the battle for towboat usage in 2023 is over, the war rages on.

Outfitters and those who use towboats will now wait for the next round of litigation which will undoubtably come from Wilderness Watch or other advocacy groups in the near future.

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