U.S. Forest Service officials on Monday said they will reopen the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for day trips starting Tuesday but will continue to ban overnight trips and camping until at least May 18.
The new order falls in line with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 executive order for Minnesotans to stay home and to only participate in recreation close to home. That order is set to expire May 18, but could still be extended.
The BWCAW closure, first enacted last month, has had little impact so far, with lakes just in recent days losing their ice. But the closure now cancels at least two canoe trip weekends in May, including this weekend’s Minnesota fishing opener.
All other Forest Service campgrounds outside the BWCAW also will remain closed until at least May 18. All state and private campgrounds also are closed until May 18, except those that serve as people’s primary residences.
“The ice went out yesterday, and people usually start showing up when the ice goes out, so it’s not ideal to have this happening,’’ said Dan Shirley, co-owner of Sawbill Outfitters on the Sawbill Trail. “But the way the Forest Service is doing this, it makes sense to coordinate with the state. If overnight camping isn’t allowed anywhere else in the state it probably shouldn’t be here.”
Forest Service officials said continuing the overnight camping ban in the BWCAW “aligns with the governor’s request that people recreate close to home and avoid engaging in unnecessary travel. By allowing only day-use of the BWCAW, the Superior National Forest is providing some additional opportunities for local recreation and businesses.”
Connie Cummins, Superior National Forest supervisor, said continuing the overnight ban was a difficult decision.
“I want people to enjoy their public land and know that reopening the BWCAW for day use is a step in that direction,’’ she said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to the day when we can safely reopen sites for overnight use.”
Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Co., a canoe outfitter and outdoor retailer in Ely, said the loss of business will hurt now — but not as much as it would if the closure lasts into June and July.
“It’s going to hurt everybody up here some, maybe the ones that cater to fishing more than others. But it’s better now than July. May is not one of our busiest summer months,’’ Piragis said. “It’s better to deal with it now than to open too early only to have to shut down again at peak season.”
Shirley said customers are calling and emailing with concerns over summer trip plans. But he said he’s optimistic that overnight camping will be allowed after the stay-at-home order expires on May 18 — just in time for Memorial Day Weekend. He said his staff already is redesigning the business to deal with COVID-19 precautions when customers arrive.
“We’re essentially going to curbside pickup’’ for canoe trips, he said. “We are going to try to keep everything with customers outside and as distanced as possible, at least to start.”
BWCAW reservations made through May 17 will receive a full refund, including reservation fees. For more information on permit reservations, go to recreation.gov or call the Superior National Forest hotline at 218-626-4395.
Gas grills, stoves now legal
Forest Service officials also noted Monday that they have slightly relaxed fire restrictions in both the Superior and Chippewa National Forests, now allowing gas stoves and gas grills. Charcoal grills and wood fires, including campfires, will continue to be banned until fire danger diminishes as spring greenup occurs.
Voyageurs National Park camping also closed
Voyageurs National Park officials said Monday they will extend their closure for all tent and houseboat camping until May 18. The closure will prevent any overnight trips into the park but won’t impact day-use fishing excursions onto the large border lakes inside the park.
Minnesota’s only national park also is honoring current group campground reservations made for after May 18, but will not accept any additional group camping reservations for this season — an effort to promote social distancing recommendations. The Kettle Falls Hotel, one of the park’s biggest attractions, will be open only for boat services and gas through the end of May. The hotel and restaurant won’t be open until further notice and the park has canceled all boat tours for the summer.
The park’s mainland hiking trails are still open with no access fee, but the park’s International Falls headquarters and various visitors centers will remain closed at least until May 18. Park staff are answering inquiries by mail, email and phone at 218-283-6600. For more information, go to nps.gov/voya.
Apostle Islands National Scenic Lakeshore and Isle Royale National Park have already announced total closures well into June.