Protecting the Boundary Waters: These Organizations Work Hard

6-minute read

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northeast Minnesota is America’s most-visited wilderness area. Several Minnesota-based organizations have arisen to help protect this important environment along with tens of thousands of concerned citizens.

two women canoe on a Boundary Waters lake

The Boundary Waters provides pristine wilderness for 1,200 miles of canoe routes (photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

Recent attempts to establish sulfide-ore copper mining adjacent to this vast watershed area have been the catalyst for much of these efforts. These organizations are working hard to resist mining efforts and are committed to seeing this national treasure protected permanently.

Before we introduce them to you, though…

Why Protect the Boundary Waters?

The BWCAW provides 1,200 miles of canoe routes among 1,100 pristine northern lakes over 1.1 million acres of boreal forest. Only Everglades National Park is a larger protected wilderness east of the Rocky Mountains.

The Boundary Waters averages 250,000 visitors a year who come in under permits and strict regulations to keep the forests, lakes, rivers, fish and wildlife as close to Leave No Trace as possible.

Dozens of camps and organizations use the Boundary Waters in their programming to teach kids and teenagers wilderness, paddling and life skills. Hundreds of businesses rely on the integrity of this area for its tourism economy. Tens of thousands of visitors come from around the country to canoe, fish, camp, hunt and enjoy a variety of human-powered winter sports.

Sulfide-ore copper mining has real potential to leak toxic pollution into this magnificent and valuable watershed area. Pollution that would remain in these waterways for centuries.

Our headquarters is just a few hours from dozens of Boundary Waters entrance points. Many of our employees, some of our ambassador team and thousands of our customers enjoy the BWCAW regularly. So we’re concerned about its protection too.

canoe sits on shore at night under the Milky Way

The BWCAW was designated as the world’s largest Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2020 (photo courtesy of @Forged from the Wild)

OK, on to the organizations dedicated to its ongoing flourishing…

Friends of the Boundary Waters

Friends of the Boundary Waters is the oldest of these organizations, founded in 1976. It was instrumental in helping to get the initial legislation passed that set this area apart as a nationally protected wilderness in 1978.

Friends has offices in Saint Paul (with close access to the Minnesota capitol building) and Ely (one of the main gateway communities to the BWCAW). It has a well-established staff and a large board of directors that govern its activities.

This 501(c)3 organization works with a large volunteer base to provide resources for the communities surrounding the Boundary Waters. They are dedicated to helping make it a place where everyone feels welcome, regardless of ethnicity. And the organization works closely with school groups and educators to encourage the next generation to enjoy and protect it as well.

Their website states: “Our mission is to protect the Boundary Waters and to connect people of all backgrounds to the wilderness so that this and future generations benefit from this special place.”

The Friends website includes many helpful resources for successful canoe and hiking trips in the BWCAW like what to bring, how to get a permit, cooking tips, bear safety and more.

A major part of the Friends’ current focus is to educate and provide resources about the potential harm sulfide-ore copper mining could inflict on this area’s watershed. They’re committed to getting permanent environmental protection at the federal level.

Learn more about Friends of the Boundary Waters on their website.

canoe trippers load up canoes at a Boundary Waters portage

Several generations have enjoyed unique outdoor adventure experiences in the Boundary Waters (photo courtesy of Sarah Rinke)

Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness • Save the Boundary Waters • Boundary Waters Connect

Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW) was founded in 1996, “a locally-based national organization with strong ties to the wild public lands of northern Minnesota and Canada.” They especially advocate for wilderness protection in the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest of northeast Minnesota and the bordering Quetico wilderness of southern Ontario.

(Campaign to) Save the Boundary Waters and Boundary Waters Connect are programs initiated by NMW. Save the Boundary Waters became NMW’s central effort in 2013, seeking permanent protection for the Boundary Waters, Quetico and Voyageurs National Park watersheds from sulfide-ore copper mining. Boundary Waters Connect (2019) is NMW’s economic and community development program that works with the communities that border these wilderness areas.

Though based in small-town Ely, Minnesota, NMW and its programs have national influence, pursued by a dedicated staff of more than two dozen and a large board of directors. They call themselves the largest conservation organization in Minnesota with this focus on these wilderness areas.

Learn more by visiting their three websites:

Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters

Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters was founded in 2015. It was “established as a hunting and angling voice for protecting the BWCA from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining in its watershed.”

Outdoor recreation drives the economy of the BWCAW’s surrounding communities—not just canoe enthusiasts and hikers, but droves of anglers and hunters. Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters has a small but dedicated staff of experienced outdoorsmen and an active board with national prominence in hunting and fishing conservation efforts.

Brandon Johnson with a huge walleye in the Boundary Waters

Bending Branches mechanical engineer Brandon Johnson with a nice walleye he caught on a 2023 BWCAW canoe trip

Their audience has been a key voice in many national environmental protection programs over many decades. To have them join to give a voice for permanent protection of the Boundary Waters is a huge boost.

Like the others on this list, Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters is based in Ely, Minnesota (which, by the way, has a population of just over 3,000 people—a small but mighty community!).

Learn more about Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters on their website.

Boundary Waters Business Coalition

As of this writing, 353 companies are on the Business Supporters List of Boundary Waters Business Coalition (BWBC), including Bending Branches. These aren’t just Minnesota or Midwest businesses, though—38% represent the broader United States with a handful being international.

BWBC arose out of concern for “permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from risky sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on the edge of this iconic wilderness.”

Their business members understand that protecting the pristine wilderness environment of the BWCAW also protects and supports the economic strength of the region surrounding it.

The leadership team of BWBC consists of the owners of five retail, resort, manufacturing and guide companies in northern Minnesota. They emphasize that for northeast Minnesota where the BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park are located, tourism is responsible for 17,000 jobs and almost a billion dollars in sales each year.

Damage to its most famous wilderness area wouldn’t just affect the natural environment, but a significant portion of the economy in dozens, maybe hundreds, of communities.

Learn more about Boundary Waters Business Coalition on their website.

Branches paddle, fly rod, canoe handbook and other gadgets laying on a Boundary Waters map


We’re thankful for these organizations—their staff, boards and volunteers who continually serve to protect the Boundary Waters and its important watershed area.

What paddling questions can our friendly Customer Service team help you with? Contact us here: 715-755-3405 or [email protected]

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