BWCAW Overview and History

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a unique place located in the northern third of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. Over 1,098,000 acres in size, the wilderness area extends nearly 150 miles along the International Boundary, adjacent to Canada’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks, is bordered on the west by Voyageurs National Park, and by Grand Portage Monument to the east. The BWCAW contains over 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails and over 2,000 designated campsites. 

This area was set aside in 1926 to preserve its primitive character and made a part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964 with subsequent legislation in 1978. Wilderness offers freedom to those who wish to pursue an experience of expansive solitude, self-discovery, challenge, risk and personal connection with nature. The BWCAW allows visitors to canoe, portage and camp in the spirit of those travelers that came before them centuries ago. 

In 2018, we observed the 40th anniversary of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act (PL 95-495). The 1964 Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System and included the BWCA, however the BWCAW Act of 1978 added more acreage and specific management direction with the purpose to protect, manage, enhance and restore the area. Learn more about the BWCAW Act of 1978.

Forty Years and Counting- the BWCAW Act

In 2018 we celebrated and reflected on the 40th anniversary of implementing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. Like any other anniversary, it is an occasion that calls for reflection on the past, present, and future of this area that many refer to simply as ‘the B-Dub’.

Over time, people have been drawn to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) for reasons reflecting changing social values. Leading up the 1964 Wilderness Act, and subsequent BWCAW Act, a long series of actions were taken to protect the natural character of the area. You can read more about the history of the BWCAW but two pieces of legislation define wilderness management and uses today.

The BWCAW became part of a National Wilderness Preservation System with signing of the 1964 Wilderness Act. According to the Act, Wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The intent of the Act was to establish wilderness areas that would remain undeveloped “for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness”.

While inclusion in the national wilderness system lent federal protection, intense conflicts continued; most regarding pre-existing uses in the newly designated BWCAW. Following years of debate and compromise, Congress passed legislation to address specific issues related to the BWCAW. Jimmy Carter signed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act (PL 95-495) on October 21, 1978, adding acreage, establishing the adjacent Mining Protection Area, and amending the national Wilderness Act of 1964, with the purpose to: 

(1) protection and manage fish and wildlife “to enhance public enjoyment and appreciation of the unique biotic resources”,

(2) protect and enhance the natural values and environmental quality of the lakes, streams, shorelines and associated forest areas,

            (3) maintain high water quality,

(4) minimize,” to the maximum extent possible”, the environmental impacts associated with mineral development,

(5) restore natural conditions to existing temporary roads and prevent further road and commercial development,

(6) provide “orderly and equitable transition from motorized recreational uses to non-motorized recreational use…”

The Act specifically prohibits logging and provides direction to the Forest Service regarding: level of motorized watercraft use, size of motors, quotas for use, motorized/mechanized portages, snowmobile use, location of resorts, and maintenance of dams.

A comprehensive implementation strategy accompanied the BWCAW Act. The Forest Service was authorized to purchase private lands inside the BWCAW and to compensate timber buyers for contracts terminated or modified by the Act. In addition, the Forest Service was to “expedite the intensification of resource management on the national forest” and “development of dispersed outdoor recreation” outside of the BWCAW.

A key aspect of the implementation strategy was cooperation between the Forest Service and other agencies to provide transition assistance to displaced landowners. This included technical and financial assistance to certain commercial resorts and outfitters “to improve economic opportunities for tourism and recreation-related businesses in a manner which is complementary to the management of the Wilderness”.

Following implementation of the BWCAW Act and several years of litigation, the Forest Service established the first BWCAW Management Plan in 1993. Management direction for the Wilderness was later integrated into the  2004 Superior National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan.

To retain its enduring value, various uses in wilderness must be balanced to be compatible with ‘wilderness character’ which is at the core of the wilderness concept. In managing wilderness, the Forest Service does not simply set aside land and leave it alone. As the agency steward, the Forest Service will continue to actively manage the BWCAW to monitor and protect wilderness character, guided by the BWCAW Act, along with the national Wilderness Act and Forest Plan, and with input from engaged citizens today and for many tomorrows.


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