Current Status of the Boundary Waters Motorized Towboat Controversy

A towboat operator tied a canoe to an overhead rack ahead of taking a camping party into the BWCA. TONY KENNEDY, STAR TRIBUNE

Ah.. Wilderness.  Based on the ongoing discussion here, I looked up the Act and at amendments.

There seems to be a 1978 amendment on the Boundary Waters that said existing motorized boat use could continue.

Then I looked up the current status and it looks like there is a court case to reduce the number of motorized towboats.

“Older visitors and visitors with limited mobility-use towboats, and an injunction would risk reducing these visitors’ opportunities to experience the BWCAW,” Brasel wrote in her 27-page decision on the injunction. “Moreover, a total ban would likely disrupt Forest Service’s work of gathering and analyzing data regarding motorboat and towboat usage.”

The judge had ordered Wilderness Watch and the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the BWCAW, to work out an agreement on towboat use before a trial is held. But the two sides so far haven’t been able to agree on how much use is too much, and Brasel said she wouldn’t make that ruling at this point.

“Because the record is completely muddled as to how such a limit should be calculated, the Court declines to pick what would be an arbitrary number,” Brasel noted. “But a limit may be appropriate upon a further‐developed record.”

To me,  it seems like the court case should start a public process in deciding how many boats and where, with NEPA and public comment.  Such  decisions, about federal lands,  would be best informed by all the experiences, views and research that can be brought to bear not a few folks in a closed room. That’s how it often works.. litigation kicks off a public process, and doesn’t replace one.

28 thoughts on “Current Status of the Boundary Waters Motorized Towboat Controversy”

  1. The following piece was written by Wilderness Watch’s Kevin Proescholdt, who is based in Minnesota and has worked to protect the BWCAW for nearly 50 years, guided wilderness canoe trips in the area for 10 years, and helped pass the 1978 BWCAW Act through Congress.

    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. 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.”

    Also, more information about the lawsuit and issue can be found here, including this important context, which sort of seems to align with what Sharon thinks would be a good idea:

    In 2015, Wilderness Watch filed a lawsuit in federal district court to force the FS to comply with its own plans and regulations limiting commercial towboat use in the BWCAW. Wilderness Watch had discovered that the FS wasn’t controlling the number of towboat trips, and its system for monitoring them was deeply flawed, relying upon reports submitted by the outfitters after the season was finished. These after-the-fact reports provided no way for the FS to track the number of towboat trips during the season or to end towboat trips when the maximum limit had been reached. As a result, many years since 1993 witnessed significant violations of the towboat limit, with the FS doing nothing to correct this problem, until Wilderness Watch’s successful lawsuit forced them to finally confront this issue.

    To settle our 2015 lawsuit, the FS promised to assess the towboat numbers and apply the legal standards for whether and to what extent they could be allowed. But now, several years later, the agency has failed to uphold its promises, dragging its feet and repeatedly punting its work on the towboat problem, which has only grown worse in the meantime.

    So this seems like another classic case of U.S. Forest Service foot-dragging and kicking the can down the road instead of doing what the agency promised. Also, just an FYI that I work for Wilderness Watch.

    • No fan of towboats, having been on sag with them, but:

      a) super useful press release, those are always helpful…. the thing is the agency is usually a moderator among competing uses and the WW release is, per usual, a snide simplification of a long legislative, judicial, administrative history around this issue.

      b) a more useful article:,20362

      c) “The 1978 law phased out the unlimited-horsepower outboards, believing that would end the commercial towboats.” notwithstanding the arguments in the congressional record, section 4c of the law clearly states the horsepower limit. it wasn’t a later “discovery”.

      d) And other details for those who wish to follow along:

      • Thanks for the links, Matthew and Anon.. Anon, I have never looked at a docket before.. does the USG have two attorneys and the plaintiff five? Is more better?

      • I’m not sure what in the world “anonymous” found to be snide (i.e. derogatory or mocking in an indirect way) about Kevin Proescholdt’s article.

        Also, the link provided (twice) in the comment above, does, in fact, provide a fairly comprehensive legislative, judicial, and administrative history around this issue.

        Here’s that link a third time, and please notice all the additional links contained here:

        • So it’s ok to ‘guide’ and make money off of trips to wilderness?

          But everything else is off limits in wilderness?

        • In all fairness, WW’s position about motorboats here isn’t actually all that far from my own. I simply don’t like the tone and it’s representative of a larger bone to pick that has to do with the honesty and tone of these debates (do all ENGOs send personnel to the same place to learn their writing style? At once journalistic but in an editorial way, addicted to feigning surprise, innocence and shock alongside a sorta-worldly cynicism that on its own would suggest never outgrowing the “I just read Edward Abbey” phase of many a college sophomore)

          To the point, i find it snide and simplified, per the provided definition, in implying that it is straightforwardly obvious to all but the most commercially motived (read: corrupt, bad) that the a) can is being purposefully kicked (as opposed to more garden-variety dysfunction); b) that congress did indeed intend to eliminate all motorized use but those wily outfitters found a loophole (see point c above)

          Perhaps less directly related to snide in the strict sense of the definition, but equally irritating, is the wink to what’s allowed to be commercially motivated and what isn’t “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.”

          Granting that congress did indeed intend to protect wilderness character, the statement in question quite obviously creates the implication that making money is directly opposed to preserving wilderness character, and it’s those greedy locals making a living that should respect the wilderness (pay no attention to, I dunno, gear distributors and their sources in foreign factories, thousands of tons of CO2 generated by visitors driving up there, degradation resulting from popularity alone, the general paradoxes of wilderness economies).

          Now maybe those things are fine, a tourist economy requires, well, tourists. But it’s hardly secret that WW would prefer to eliminate this use and the commercial activity it generates altogether. Why not just say it? Why not pursue that as part of legislative overhauls to the 1978 BWCAW act?

          • A.- thanks for your discussion of the rhetoric, I find it annoying but never really analyzed it.

            I’m confused by..
            “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.”
            If Congress intended no motorboats, why did they amend the Act to include them?

  2. For those who don’t know the BWCA, the few lakes at question here are not deep in the wilderness. These lakes are on the EDGE of the wilderness, with houses along access channels and clear legislation allowing deeded homeowners to have small motors. They’re entry points into the paddle only wilderness. Let’s be clear that the debate is not about sanctity of deep wilderness, rather the edge services available to facilitate entry into true, deep wilderness.

    On half of Sag (one of the lakes in question) just over the border, Canadians allow motors with NO horsepower limitations. They have permit exemption stickers and spend lots of time in America, using their 25HP kickers. Plenty of Americans have to paddle through those waters to access Quetico Provincial Park and Crown’s Land-towboats or not.

    So, let’s be clear, take away towboats. There will still be motors and (on the Canadian side of Sag) float planes and much bigger motors.

    The real question here is accessibility and Wilderness Watch finds itself on the wrong side of history, with seemly not enough to do with their millions of cached assets. Forgive me but the perspective seems rather, well, woke, for lack of a better word. Removing tows portends so much lost, and little gained accept for a group from Montana messing with Minnesota to satisfy what ends?

    Services available on the edge of the Boundary Waters are common American park systems. Towboat services compare to concessions offering amenities on the edge of many great wildernesses- perhaps with towboats having less impact and more benefit.

    For instance, there is an car road/cog railway up Mount Washington in New Hampshire and cog railway up Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Those services are not perfect for drainage, noise, or wildlife. There are lodges you can drive to on the edge of Glacier National Park’s awesome wilderness and RVs drive straight through the heart of Glaciers via Going to the Sun Road- among longhorn sheep.

    Few dispute the wisdom of providing such services on the edge of pure wilderness. I don’t see any litigation surrounding these foundational American accessibility staples.

    Take note, Friends of the Boundary Waters, among the staunchest allies protecting the area, have NOT come out in favor of the towboat limitation. Proescholdt should ask himself wny the protective organization he helped found, made up of committed pro-wilderness donors, has refused so far to publicly support erasing towboats. It’s because nobody wins if outfitters are damaged and go out of business.

    There are comments about making money. Trust me, outfitters do not get rich. It’s a difficult occupation made up of committed folks who are true stewards of the ecosystem and wilderness pathos.

    Around the Minneapolis wilderness protection community, we’ve heard rumblings that Kevin Proescholdt is still sore about compromises that culminated in the BWCA Wilderness Act of 1978 and has held a grudge since being a young person with a long history at the end of the Gunflint Trail. I suggest Kevin give up the fight, take his cue from Friends of the Boundary Waters, and stop spearheading litigation that will damage many wilderness lovers’ access, create danger where safe solutions exist, relying on vague data, and oversimplifying a much more complicated situation.

    Wilderness Watch is unhappy about the levels of tow services- so, they are suing to fully eliminate them. I’m 63 years old, have two mechanical heart valves, and paddled those waters for 40 years. Now I have limitations but I’m as staunch an ally of paddle only wilderness as anyone. Without a tow, I’m stuck in the wake of Canadian motors and sometimes faced with tackling a very difficult lake once limited permits run out.

    Finally, Proescholdt’s Editorial in the Duluth News Tribune would lead one to believe that Wilderness Watch is a Minnesota Outfit. In fact, they’re not. The office listed on the Wilderness Watch website is a residential structure in a South Minneapolis hood, 2833 43rd Ave S. The editorial is arguably deceptive because Wilderness Watch is based in Montana.

    • Marty, just a point of information, Pike’s Peak is not near a Wilderness, in fact water on those slopes is heavily managed via dams and reservoirs.

    • Marty,

      One quick point:

      Mount Washington and the Mountain Washington Auto Road are not in designated Wilderness.

      None of Glacier National Park is designated Wilderness.

      Pike’s Peak and the Pike’s Peak Road and Railroad are not in designated Wilderness.

      The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is designated Wilderness.

    • Correct, further worth noting that Seagull, and, I think Moose, are not entirely within the wilderness (meaning the lakes proceed outside the boundary) as are a great many others, like Snowbank, Farm, etc. Point is that the boundary is quite messy for the BWCA. To say nothing of the actual international boudary cutting across many as noted above. The 78 BWCA act is nothing if not a rather specific set of compromises that aren’t always straightforward to implement.

  3. Thank you. Well, that addresses one point of about a dozen :). Shall I make a list of the items not addressed in your response, or run ads to Wilderness Watch and Friends donors to ask the same questions?

    Always entertaining to see you in these threads Matt. Happy paddling.

    • Well, Marty Weintraub, you have been running ads (as paid/promoted Tweets) against Wilderness Watch for a while now. So I can only assume that you are going to continue to do what you are going to do.

      Meanwhile, Wilderness Watch continues to receive supportive notes from our supporters and members in Minnesota about this issue, including this one from an individual who owns two properties on Saganaga Lake:

      “I was happy to learn that your organization is working to limit towboats in the boundary waters. The towboats from Seagull Outfitters continuously and noisily run back and forth in front of my properties ignoring the ‘Slow’ and ‘No Wake’ signs, and the drivers do not slow down when passing paddlers which is dangerous and discourteous. The towboats are also kept at the public boat landings without permission. I’m not against outfitters’ commercial operations especially if it helps more people experience the BWCA but if it comes at the expense of ruining the wilderness character of a public resource designated as a wilderness then I think there should be some limits. Thanks for your efforts.”

      • If they live on Sag Lake Tr, they won’t stop motors. Sag Lake Trail is outside the Boundary Waters.

        One question you seem to be sidestepping Mathew: Why are Friends of the Boundary Waters not publicly supporting the towboat litigation?

  4. Just asking … does the use of towboats contribute to better distribution of users in the wilderness? If so, is that a good thing (fewer contacts means a better wilderness experience) or a a bad thing (more areas getting greater visitor impacts)?

    • Jonathan, Yes,
      Many of the few permits available for entry into the BWCA are available via large lake entry points with towboat service. Without tow services, there will likely be many occasions where campsites are just not available on massive border entry lakes, for lack of human dispersion. What will paddlers do then? The litigation is short sighted.

      Towboat services are a responsible and ethical means of providing equitable, responsible access to our protected wilderness areas. These services help families, and people with physical challenges. Boundary Waters towboats limit border lake overcrowding and enhance safety. Towboats serving border lake entry points have stood the test of time for decades as an extraordinary and agreed-upon compromise that respects the edge of wilderness and human needs.

      Lakes like Saganaga and Seagull can be dangerous to canoes. Paddlers often utilize tow services to avoiding heavy winds and rough water to access portages to paddle-only lakes. Ironically, the BWCA Wilderness Act of 1978 (Pub.L. 95-495) provides for limited motor usage on tow lakes anyway. Not all of every border lake is even in the BWCA. Towboat services quickly and safely transport wilderness paddlers out of motorized terrain to paddle-only waters, which comprise the vast majority of the BWCA

  5. Listen to what you’re saying Matt :).

    You cite, “Supportive notes from our supporters and members in Minnesota about this issue, including this one from an individual who owns two properties on Saganaga Lake.”

    OWNS, Matt, they OWN land- not the wilderness. Owning on Sag, likely means electricity, internet, septic, plowed roads, OWNS :). Even if they don’t partake and are the rare Sag owners who are off the grid, OWNING on Sag is not the wilderness, There are FedX deliveries, snowplows, and parties yelling, beer. Your complainants probably don’t like canoe toting cars rumbling down the gravel Sag Lake Tr. Rd raising dust either. LOL.

    Sag is three parts: 1) Not wilderness at all. You can hunt, snowmobile, drive your boat, etc. 2) is the partial area on Sag home owners with exempt permits, towboats, Canadian owners, Forest Service in power boats, fishing guides in power boats, etc. 3) There is a hard line about American Point, paddle only, period (as is the very vast majority of the BWCA). Boats stop there.

    You act as if Wilderness Watch is saving the whole of the Boundary Waters from those smelly boats but in reality your talking about an extremely small parcel bordering on a massive, pristine wilderness. Tow services disperses paddlers out of a zone that is legislated to provide exempt day use motor permit for very same homeowners who are complaining to you. Too funny. It is the compromise that Kevin seems to hate. Without that compromise, there probably would not have been a BWCA.

    You still won’t answer why your pals at Friends of the Boundary Waters, who are litigation happy (in a good way) at taking on any threat to the BWCA and have been for years, seem reticent to even acknowledge Wilderness Watch’s myopic litigation- let alone support in public. Ask yourself why that is. Please share with readers here in this thread, why that is, Matt. Inquiring minds want to know.

    One other thing. There are outfitters and homeowners who own land right next to the boat landings. No outfitter docks their towboats at the boat landing. They stop by, pick up and drop off passengers and dock nearby at docks from land they OWN on Sag.

    I think the Emperor has no clothes. All you are doing is pounding the table. Facts are hard to come by from your camp except for the same tactics as everywhere else, one size fits all, fully pristine, every inch, or else. Please go back to Montana and get your information straight about MY home, Minnesota.

    • Don’t hold your breath, sadly. Or expel it after another non-answer.
      “Wilderness” has been perverted for an agenda.

  6. It’s WILDERNESS. The Forest Service and other federal agencies that administer Congressionally-Designated Wilderness need to do their jobs. It’s not easy and it’s not fun, but the FS is not doing a good job of monitoring anything these days and hasn’t for years.

    • Sorry, Marty, we have many different Anonymi here and we respect their desire for anonymity.. we engage with their arguments and not their names or lack thereof.

      • Thanks for clarifying.I ‘m going to check out of this thread now. Sharon, thank you very much for hosting the conversation. I won’t respond to more comments because I don’t know who anon is and I don’t debate figments of someone’s imagination. The pitfalls allowing anon comments in blogs posts is that we never know who is a shill for what cause. We can agree to consume comments from and engage with anon, but sources and motivations are second or third tier compared to known individuals. Topics embodied here are people’s lives, livelihoods, and sanctity of the wilderness we are dealing with. My company does not advise clients to allow anon comments on their blogs.

        Hey Matt, why are none of the other MN wilderness defense groups signed on to your towboat litigation in public? It’s kind of like when Wilderness Watch lost in 2006 on summary judgement. The complaint was that the Park Service, after and environmental review, undertook minimal maintenance on historic buildings- some hiker shelters in back country. This is not the first case of arguably excessive litigation to prove a point. Pretty much no organizations are behind you in MN- just Kevin in his WW residential home office (of how many, one person?) holding a grudge and unwilling to compromise. I’m going to see to it that Wilderness Watch donors fully understand the seeming intransigence of your employer, willing to potentially damage access to those challenged, overcrowd areas, and make crossings to paddle only zones less safe. The lawsuit is to eliminate tows, not get the forest service to be at certain levels.

        • Hi Marty, a few thoughts.
          Your situation is not unique, so I’m sure many TSW readers will be empathetic with your situation.
          Here are my views on what you call “arguably excessive” litigation, knowing that many TSW readers are in fact litigants.Litigation is not a good way to resolve these kinds of disputes.
          1) For ages, folks have suggested requiring mediation prior to litigation in these kinds of disputes. The problem is that we don’t really know what the point of the lawsuit is, as litigants tend not to say, going for “what they can get.” It’s frustrating for us Forest Service folks as we have read all the public comments and at the end of the day the settlement can occur pretty much behind closed doors between lawyers, often requiring more work by the FS and not really resolving the dispute.
          2) Yes it is frustrating when people outside your area hold so much control over what happens.
          3) I’ve thought about the idea of “presenting the other point of view” to say, members of the Board of such groups, but I have never been able to find an “in”.. but you may have the networks to be able to.
          Just some sympathies and thoughts.


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