Bigger Boat Tours Coming to Voyageurs National Park

Sunset over Johnson Lake, Voyageurs National Park. Daniel J. Moore photo via flickr.

Here's an update to the Voyageurs National Park boat tours story. There currently are boat tours available, but not on the scale that will be possible thanks to the $1.4 million a congressman from Minnesota has directed to the National Park Service so it can build a 49-seat boat.

But the 50-foot-long boat won't be ready for duty until 2010.

“This funding restores one of the park’s signature services,” says Eighth District Congressman James Oberstar.

“Voyageurs has not had regular tour boat services for over a decade. This will allow park visitors, school groups and even private charters to take a one-day excursion and see the park’s dazzling scenery, abundant wildlife and important historical sites," says the Democrat. "There are so many back bays and historic gold mining sites that it will be hard for the park to fit everything into to one cruise.”

The park's rangers currently do offer summer interpretive boat tours, but as you can see from the picture on this page, the boats are not serious cruisers.

As for the new boat, a release says Congressman Oberstar worked with a broad-based group of partners to help secure funding for the boat. The money comes from 2008 Federal Lands Highway Category III - Alternative Transportation Program, and Rep. Oberstar just happens to be chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The tour boat will be designed with the latest “green” technology, according to Rep. Oberstar, who says it will be "equipped with highly efficient engines that operate on bio-diesel fuel."

“The boat may be 50-feet long, but it will have a very small environmental footprint,” he says.


I'm curious as to what the source of this funding is - the first paragraph makes it sound like a Congressional earmark, but the last part sounds more like a private charitable donation. Perhaps the most surprising thing, however, is why hasn't the Park Service entered into an agreement with a private concessionaire to offer tour boat service? Would it really be so impossible for a private tour boat service to make a living in Voyageurs?

Being a House Committee Chair (Transportation) Rep. Oberstar has been bringing home the pork to Minnesota for quite a while now. It keeps him in office, seemingly indefinitely. I'm sure this funding is most likely seed money for a private-public partnership. I don't find it likely that a concessionaire could make a go of profitably running a tour operation because most of Voyagers visitors bring or rent boats to the park. As much as the locals detest Voyagers, they don't mind a little federal cash coming their way, however.

Are there no boat tours because most visitors bring their own boat, or do most visitors bring their own boat beacuse there are no boat tours?

Why do most locals detest Voyagers?

Perhaps this case points to a larger question across the National Park System: Just what does the National Park Service owe communities surrounding parks, and what do those communities owe those parks?

As I understand it, private concessionaires have not been able financially to make a go of running tour boats of this size through Voyageuers. If they can't, why should the federal government, via the NPS, subsidize that service? After all, not only is there the $1.4 million needed to pay for the boat, but then there's the annual O&M costs. And who will be driving the boat, who will be doing the interpretation, who will be handling the reservations and ticket sales, and who will be paying their salaries?

If every congressman/woman were able, like Rep. Oberstar, to divert $1.4 million to the park of their choice, without providing the necessary funds to wipe out the Park Service's massive $8.5 billion backlog, would that improve the state of the parks?

Should parks be seen as economic engines, or should they exist to conserve the resources for the enjoyment of future generations? Can they do both?

Just some questions to ponder on this May day.

Here in Minnesota, we will bring our own boats whether there was a tour boat or no. Boating is a very significant cultural activity, and many Minnesotans own boats or have access to one through family or friends. However, those visiting the park from outside the local area often rent boats and hire guides to get to the best fishing, or the best scenery. I could see how a tour boat could aid those who are unfamiliar with watercraft, or who are financially unable to rent a boat, get some enjoyment out a park that is mostly water. Is it a needed service? Most likely not. A way for a Congressman to move pork to his district? More likely.

I'm guessing, then that no one knows why locals 'detest' the park, as ironranger said earlier....

I could see why private tour boats would do well in some areas, such as Fort William Henry on Lake George, NY, and not in others such as Voyageurs. Lake George is associated more directly with American History and is easily accessible for all demographics. I've never been to Voyageurs but it seems more of a remote location, and lacks the easily distinguished tie-in to the historical? That being said, it's only accessible to limited numbers of people. As a result, there's naturally less potential for the private tour operators.

Allow me to play Devil's Advocate for a moment. The NPT has long argued for increased funding for interpretation services for the Parks. Well, most of Voyageurs National Park is covered in water - what kind of interpretation can really occur there without a boat? Thus, I'm surprised that this development is treated with such skepticism.

Argh! Can someone tell me why ironranger said that "the locals detest Voyagers"??


Better interpretation is definitely a plus. My concern is that the system for funding the parks is out of whack. Too often it comes down to whose congressperson is more adept at earmarking legislation or calling in favors for support.

Just look at how the Centennial Challenge funds are being disbursed: In this first go-round, if a project didn't already have a stream of private money attached to it, it wasn't even considered, no matter how much merit it carried. There are more than a few questionable projects that got approval simply because they had some private money attached. Why are centennial funds being used to install utilities to a campground at Hot Springs National Park, and to install a new boat ramp at Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, and yet there's no money to save paleontological jobs at Dinosaur National Monument?

What I'd like to see is more clarity, and less politics, in prioritizing the needs across the park system. I know there is a priority system for construction projects, but what about for some of the other needs that exist? Too often priorities are established through earmarks. In fiscal 2005, for instance, there were 31 earmarks that funneled nearly $53 million to the NPS for congressionally selected (and thus mandated) projects.

Would the national park system as a whole have benefited more if that $53 million went into the NPS's overall budget for NPS staff to decide how best it could be spent? I'd like to think so.

Now, I've been told the funds for the Voyageurs boat are coming from the Alternative Transportation in the Parks and Public Lands Program, which aims to get folks out of private vehicles and into shared transportation. That sounds like a great program, (one, by the way, that I'd never heard about until this issue popped up).

Was the Voyageurs boat at the top of the funding list? I don't know. If so, great. I would be interested to learn whether there is a list of projects waiting to be funded through this program, and how they're assigned priority. If I can find anything out, I'll pass it along.

The tour boat will be designed with the latest “green” technology, according to Rep. Oberstar, who says it will be "equipped with highly efficient engines that operate on bio-diesel fuel."

Any word where the NPS will get that bio-diesel fuel? There's been a lot of talk lately how bio-fuels are not so "green" and actually are causing world-wide problems such as higher food prices and deforestation; they also require a lot of petroleum to produce, process, and ship.

Voyageurs National Park is a beautiful, wild park where you can travel the historic water trails used by Native Americans and fur trappers. It’s also a place where you can hear wolves howl, see bald eagles soar, and catch walleye with your kids. In the Midwest, where so many of our natural landscapes have been plowed under or chopped down to feed and house the rest of the nation, this is a precious thing.

Voyageurs National Park is 218,000 acres, much of it interconnected waterways. It only has about 10 miles of roads and 60 miles of land trails. That means in order to fully experience its serene beauty and superb wildlife, you need to get into a boat.

That works fine for those who own personal boats, especially those who live nearby. But imagine the average American family on vacation, traveling to their national Park, pulling up to the visitor center in their car and being told they need a boat. While they could rent a motorboat from a local business, they would either have to navigate the Park’s waters themselves or hire a guide to drive the boat for them. Renting sea kayaks is also an option for those who have the skills needed to paddle large waters dotted with 500 granite and pine islands.

All of this means that the average American family needs help to enjoy their national park. Over the years, Voyageurs National Park has had trouble getting that help to them because (a) it’s in “flyover country” and (b) it’s 40% water, which means it has management needs that are difficult for many decision makers to understand unless they’ve spent significant time there themselves—which is unlikely, given (a).

The tour boat that’s being discussed is indeed being financed through the Alternative Transportation in Parks and Public Lands progam, which helps protect natural resources by getting visitors into public transportation and out of private vehicles. It was the highest funding priority for the Midwest region of the National Park Service (for this program) in at least one recent year, but only now has received funding.

The tour boat will serve a function similar to bus and shuttle service in Yosemite or Glacier National Park. It will provide public access via public transportation to a large, wild national park, in a region of the country whose people have few of them.

Two private concessionaires operated good-sized tour boats in Voyageurs National Park in the past, but one closed and the other relocated to another area. The high season is very short, making it difficult to turn a profit.

For those of us who love Voyageurs National Park, it’s painful to see so much criticism of this greatly needed and much sought-after project. Two questions: Should the public only have good access to their national parks if they can provide their own private vehicles or a private concessionaire is in operation? Should public transportation be provided only in the best-known, most glamorous national parks?

Kurt and Kelly have great points and information, it helps fill in some of the gaps in the story. I said "detest" in an earlier post about the local attitude towards Voyageurs. The reason being that VNP is still a rather new park, and locals have a very long memory. Many people in this neck of the woods are skeptical of the government in general, and the Feds especially. The staff at Voyageurs has done a lot to change this attitude, but it is persistent. It's not uncommon to hear griping about how the NPS took "their" fishing lake, and how "all them tourists" are ruining it for the locals. Like I said, long memories....

The difference between funding campground and boat ramps vs. paleontological positions is that the former are capital expenses and the latter are operating expenses. I would expect that funding for capital and operating comes out of two different pots of money for the Park Service, and so aren't really in competition with each other.

Meanwhile, more information on the Alternative Transportation in Parks & Public Lands Program can be found here:

The Voyageurs project isn't listed in the second link, so I'm thinking that the second link represents last year's list of projects and that the full list of this year's projects has not yet been listed.

This all reminds me of one of the basic, paradoxical, axioms of economics, i.e. the world is full of limited resources.