BWCA Litigation May Overcrowd Border Lakes, Limit Family & Accessible Experiences. Tell Wilderness Watch, George Nickas, & Kevin Proeschold Hands OFF

A Seagull Outfitters Editorial:

The future of motorized towboats in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) for 2023 depends on the decision of a federal judge in Minneapolis. Environmental group Wilderness Watch is suing in federal court to prohibit towboats’ use on 17 lakes, where they have been allowed for decades. If the lawsuit is successful, results could be devastating. Recently the judge rejected an injunction which would have removed towboats immediately.

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

Tows expand the BWCA for families, helping young canoe trekkers fall in love with the Boundary Waters and canoe wilderness camping. Young families get deep into Canoe Country woods for more intimate and relaxed experiences. Such journeys can change perspectives, shape lives, and facilitate generational stewards of the forests and environment around them.  

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. 

U.S. Forest Service: Defending Towboats’ Role

Superior National Forest officials have long concurred that the towboat system does, in fact, benefit those with mobility limitations and disperses visitors deeper into the million-acre wilderness, minimizing overcrowding at the borders. 

The US Forest Service strongly opposes litigious bullying by Wilderness Watch, which, if granted, would disrupt the plans of thousands of Minnesotans who have already booked towboat-assisted trips with BWCA outfitters and potentially dial in other important limitations.

Debate: Accessibility & Solitude vs. Crowding & Lack of Access

Small-horsepower boats transport canoeists on designated routes to bypass long-distance paddling for those unable to do so and prevent border lake crowding.  Wilderness Watch seeks a “primitive and unconfined type of recreation- their preference, not of the Forest service and many Minnesota citizens. 

Wilderness Watch: Data and Motives

Despite the ongoing litigation, the extent of motorized towboat usage and its trends remain unclear. Research by Wilderness Watch, based on Forest Service monitoring reports, shows an increase in commercial towboat trips from 2,550 in 2012 to 3,865 in 2020. However, the Forest Service’s recent court filing indicates a decrease in towboat trips from 4,817 in 2019 to 3,815 in 2020

Kevin Proescholdt, the Minnesota-based conservation director for Wilderness Watch, stated towboat traffic in the BWCA appears to have tripled since the early 1990s. The Forest Service asserts that it has consistently improved its permitted towboat management system to prevent the wilderness’s degradation. They highlight a decrease in the number of towboats permitted for use on wilderness lakes from 91 in 1992 to 63 in 2019, operated by 18 approved operators.

Wilderness Watch (George Nickas – Executive Director) has faced local criticism for its reliance on contested data out-of-state influence on issues (based in Montana). A third party service evaluating charitable entities provides a mixed review assessing Wilderness Watch’s rating. According to, the 76% 3-star, “Overall score is calculated from multiple beacon scores, weighted as follows: 80% Accountability & Finance, 10% Leadership & Adaptability, 10% Culture & Community.

Proescholdt’s Proposal: More Time for Paddling

When asked about the plans of those who have already booked towboat-assisted trips, Proescholdt suggests they could avoid canceling by allocating more time for paddling. This solution, however, may not be practical for many visitors, as it can require taking additional time off work and using more vacation time, which can be expensive.

Survival of Outfitters

Tow service is a substantial component of profitability for some Border outfitters. The irony here includes a possibility of outfitters going out of business, which may limit availability of wilderness experiences even further. If Wilderness Watch has their way, only wealthy, fully capable visitors who can afford their own gear and take unlimited time off from work will be able to enjoy some large Boundary Waters Border Lakes. 

You’re Not in Montana Anymore

Though Wilderness Watch has tapped former Friends of the Boundary Waters player Kevin Proescholdt, these folks are not local kin to all Minnesota wilderness lovers. Wilderness Watch slings litigious firebombs all over America with the seemingly singular goal of forcing all American wilderness experiences into their exclusionary model.

In this case, the tactic may result in backlash after hurting those among us with young families, facing mobility challenges, can’t afford their own gear, or don’t have unlimited PTO.  In Minnesota, we seek to balance wilderness experience, responsible usage, accessibility, and righteous commerce. 

As the debate over motorized towboats in the BWCA continues, striking a balance between accessibility and preserving the wilderness experience remains a challenge. The potential impact on visitors who rely on towboats hangs in the balance.

We in Minnesota are committed to preserving our wilderness and dedicated to facilitating access to Boundary Waters visitors who seek solitude- without prejudice, fear, or favor. We know what’s best for us at home.