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Simulating visitor travel in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

Date: April 15, 2015


Recreation context

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a popular destination for recreationists (photo by Bob Dvorak)
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a popular destination for recreationists (photo by Bob Dvorak)
Recreation use is allocated at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) on the Superior National Forest through a permit system designed to avoid congestion and crowded conditions within the Wilderness. Approximately 21,000 groups visit the BWCAW between May 1st and September 30th each year. Visitors to the BWCAW reserve a limited number of overnight permits, have travel group size restrictions, and must camp at designated campsites. Quotas exist for each access point during the heavy use season. These quotas and assumed accomplishment of use distribution are based on a model that was developed many years ago using information on visitor travel patterns at that time.

The simulation of BWCAW visitor travel began in 1970 with the first efforts to build a recreation visit simulation model for a US Wilderness area. A second-generation model was developed from itineraries collected in 1980, and the final update was made to that model in 1993. There was a need to update the model with contemporary information on visitor travel patterns across this large, heavily used wilderness in order to evaluate accomplishment of management objectives.

Research findings

Researchers with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute applied a computer simulation model to understand visitor travel through administratively established zones and use levels of backcountry campsites at the BWCAW. A discrete event simulation approach was used to predict campsite occupancy by considering how visitors travel through the BWCAW's vast system of lakes, rivers, and portages. The model accounts for the unique travel patterns of visitor groups as they choose from 61 entry points and travel through 95 backcountry travel zones (along with visits to Canada's adjoining Quetico National Park). The model is based on 12,000 actual itineraries contributed by BWCAW visitors after their trips in 2011, a sample representing 56% of all trips taken during the 2011 permit season. Information from the simulation model is being used by Superior National Forest managers to predict how changes to the travel system might impact recreationists. The model provides a user-friendly interface for interactive modeling and can output a variety of estimates about overnight visitor use. For example, the model can estimate the nightly occupancy rates across all campsites in the BWCAW, in low- versus high-use travel zones, or in a single travel zone.

Benefits to society

Current knowledge on visitor travel patterns is needed by managers to make decisions about entrance point quotas. Recreation management might require adjustments due to fire and resultant closure of entrance points, changes in road conditions, natural disturbance, such as windthrow, and findings of resource impacts or crowding in specific places. Our tool can help managers meet their wilderness stewardship responsibilities.

Featured Publications

Dvorak, Robert G. ; Watson, Alan E. ; Christensen, Neal ; Borrie, William T. ; Schwaller, Ann , 2012


Principal Investigators: 
Forest Service Partners: 
Ann Schwaller, Superior National Forest
External Partners: 
Bill Borrie, The University of Montana
Bob Dvorak, Central Michigan University
Neal Christensen, Christensen Research Company