Staff reports - Cook County News Herald - 4/7/07
This week four conservation organizations released the results of a year-long study entitled “Wilderness Between the Cracks.” The report shows “a troubling pattern of motor use violations in the eastern part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).”
According to the report authored by Kevin Proescholdt, snowmobiles, ATVs, chain saws, and high horsepower outboards have all been used illegally in the BWCAW. Volunteers documented the violations with photos taken over several seasons from a variety of areas in the eastern BWCAW.
The report was written for the Izaak Walton League, North Star chapter of the Sierra Club, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and Wilderness Watch.
Motor use violations are documented for the border lakes and connecting portages, stairway portage, Daniels portage, Clearwater and Pine Lakes, Saganaga Lake, and North and South Fowl Lakes.
According to the report, investigation of illegal motor use began after the recent controversy over the Tilbury Trail, located between McFarland and North Fowl lakes near the end of the Arrowhead Trail north of Hovland, raised concerns for a number of wilderness conservation organizations.
“Our organizations became curious about the existence of other uses or activities within the eastern portion of the BWCAW that might also violate wilderness regulations,” the report reads. “We began to compile and document instances where such violations have recently occurred.”
The report acknowledges that law enforcement is difficult over such a large area and with few officers. Further complicating the wilderness law enforcement picture is the presence of U.S. Border Patrol agents along the international border. The USBP has been exempted from complying with many laws including the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act.
“As a result, Border Patrol officers can legally utilize snowmobiles and other motorized travel within the BWCAW. Some of the snowmobile tracks documented in this report may have come from Border Patrol activities, though we believe that illegal recreational snowmobile activity also occurs within the BWCAW,” according to the report.
The report is peppered with photos of alleged infractions that occurred in 2006 and are thought to depict areas of recurring violations.
The report addresses violations by snowmobiles, which leave the most obvious tracks evidence, as well as chain saw, motorboat and ATV activity.
Snowmobiles are prohibited throughout the BWCAW except for two short trails, particularly the Saganaga corridor to Canada. In the Vento Unit (Eastern Section), the U.S. portions of the international border lakes from South Lake eastward through Rat, Rose, Rove, Watap, Mountain, Moose, and the Fowl Lakes are closed to snowmobiles, as are the connecting portages.
These lakes are all located completely or partially within the BWCAW, except the Moose to North Fowl portage, which lies completely in Canada. The Forest Service has installed ‘No Snowmobiling”’ signs on a few of these portages but they do not appear to be working, according to the report.
Stairway Portage, located between Rose and Duncan lakes, is a popular portage situated well within the BWCAW. Snowmobiling is prohibited on this portage and on the lakes on either side of it. Yet photos document that snowmobiles have recently been riding up the stairway, scarring the rocks at the bottom and damaging the wooden steps.
Heavy snowmobile traffic is also evident on the Daniels Portage and Clearwater Lake and Pine Lake — these two lakes are wilderness lakes located near many cabins. According to the report, they both suffer from consistent snowmobile trespass in the BWCAW, despite signs put up by the Forest Service.
The 1978 Wilderness Act restricts snowmobiles to no more than 40-inches wide, and to only “those types of snowmobiles, motorboats and vehicles which had been in regular use” in the BWCAW prior to 1978.
The Forest Service does not seem to be enforcing the 40-inch rule on Saganaga where some snowmobiles may legally operate, the report states, plus “the rule is not mentioned in any Forest Service literature or on any of the signs and kiosks at the public landings on Saganaga.”
In summer, outboard horsepower limits are being violated on the Fowls as well as Saganaga, the report claims. Motorboat use on the Fowls is limited to no greater than 10 horsepower. “Numerous violations of the horsepower limits on North Fowl Lake have been documented.” This includes horsepower violations as well as removal or cover-up of markings on outboards.
In the Sag Corridor, the 25-horsepower law exists for the convenience of the Canadian cabin owners on Saganaga Lake — almost all of whom are Americans. This allows them to travel within the corridor with larger than 25-horsepower motors, as long as the larger motors are not used — typically mounted on the transom but tilted up.
The report cites many violations of this convenience. Towboat violations on Sag are also noted. ATVs have been documented in winter use throughout the wilderness more than in summer, and evidence of chainsaw use on some portages is also documented.
“The violations we have documented have degraded (the) wilderness character,” the report concludes. “Protecting the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness remains a common goal of the U.S. Forest Service and conservationists.
“Not only do the violations degrade the wilderness, but if not addressed in a timely manner, they can become established uses for local residents and businesses. People who over time begin to rely on established practices are understandably upset when they are eventually told that they are breaking the law and must stop.
“When this happens, local political pressure is often put on the Forest Service to replace the illegal use, often damaging the wilderness character of the BWCAW.”
Situations like the ones documented in the report “could be avoided if the Forest Service would consistently enforce the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act. The public would then know the rules.”
The author organizations state they and the USFS “collectively can do better to fulfill the promise of the 1964 Wilderness Act to preserve the area’s wilderness character, and to pass this wilderness legacy unimpaired to future generations.”