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Forest Service studies commercial services, local outfitters fear that could mean significant changes for their businesses.

Aug 25, 2019 06:11AM ● By Editor


By Keith Vandervort from the Tower Timber Jay - August 25, 2019

The Superior National Forest is taking a new look at the use of recreational commercial services on the Superior National Forest and some local outfitters fear that could mean significant changes for their businesses.  

The Forest Service will hold an open house in Ely next month to talk about their analysis and take input from the public.

“The Forest Service is working to strike a balance between rural economic development and the effects of recreational commercial services across the forest,” said Acting Public Affairs Specialist Doug Thompson. “Our goal is to ensure future generations will continue to enjoy these national treasures.”

Forest Service officials will be available on Monday, Sept. 23, from 4:30-7 p.m. at Vermilion Community College to gather information from the public, local businesses, tribes, and others who recreate on or conduct business on federal lands in the area.

An additional open house is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 26 at the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais.

Details on the draft recreational commercial use needs assessment study can be found on the USFS website under a new name: “Outfitter-Guide Needs Assessment.”
Details are available at

Forest Service officials say that their ultimate report will be technical in nature and not a decision document, although it could well play a critical part in possible changes to the way commercial activity is regulated on the forest. 

“The assessment takes into consideration the range of recreation opportunities for the area based on supply and demand,” said Lisa Radosevich-Craig, USFS external affairs program manager and tribal liaison. “The analysis and resulting decision may lessen concentrated use or crowding and provide a more primitive experience if traveling on one’s own.”

Ely outfitter Jason Zabokrtsky told the Timberjay last week that he anticipates that the study could result in significant rules changes affecting area outfitters and other businesses that serve visitors to the Boundary Waters. “This is going to take some analysis, but I have significant initial takeaways,” he wrote in an email. “The Forest (Service) is considering limiting the number of visitors outfitter-guides may serve. Historically, the forest has chosen to allow outfitter-guides to determine the amount of visitors they can serve rather than limiting this use through an allocation. This would be a dramatic change.”

Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Co., in Ely, said he is in support of keeping the status quo for outfitters and businesses using the Boundary Waters. “They sent out surveys to just outfitters so far, I’m told, and I question if there is a need for more limiting use,” he said. “Have there been complaints? We are just fine with the way it is now, and we don’t need to be hampering new business. I would like to see that moratorium rescinded and let any new business develop.”

According to Radosevich-Craig, the analysis and resulting decision is designed to create a better recreational experience for all users on the forest, while protecting physical and social resources, and wilderness character. Based on results of the needs assessment, the forest will determine the next steps, which may include developing a capacity analysis and completion of any required environmental review. “The forest does not anticipate adjustments to existing recreational commercial services permits based upon the needs assessment at this time,” she said. Over time, however, she said it is feasible that areas on the forest may have limits on total use to protect resource conditions. On the other hand, recreational commercial services could be added if the analysis demonstrates unmet recreational needs. 

Zabokrtsky worries, however, that some key considerations may be left out of the Forest Service analysis, and that the omissions could impact the ultimate decision-making. “Additional wilderness criteria were developed to analyze the need for recreational commercial services in wilderness, and two criteria— safety and risk, and benefit to local economy— were not included. The reasons for these exclusions include the idea that wilderness is meant to be a place where challenge and risk do occur and wilderness itself does not exist to benefit an economy in a tangible manner,” Zabokrtsky said.

Analysis stems from towboat settlement
The Forest Service analysis stems from a recent settlement with Wilderness Watch, over towboat use in portions of the wilderness. The settlement only required the Forest Service to consider towboat use, but the agency has opted to use the opportunity to take a broader look at commercial recreation services across the Superior National Forest.

In 2015, Wilderness Watch sought a federal court order seeking to limit commercial towboat use on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. “The Forest Service determined that a more holistic examination would better serve the public and the forest,” Thompson said.

Open houses
At the open houses next month, the public will have an opportunity to view documents and maps. Attendees will be asked to provide information about which types of recreational commercial services they use, where they use those services on the forest, and what additional recreational services they believe the Forest Service should encourage and permit.

“This process helps keep our national forests productive and sustainable by ensuring permitted services are performed in a way that protects the forest resources and wilderness character,” Thompson added. 

Additional information about the Recreational Commercial Services Needs Assessment is available on the Superior National Forest website at

To read the original article and see related reporting, follow this link to the Tower Timber Jay website.,15354

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