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Boreal Community Media

Online BWCA permit system works for some, not for others

Mar 10, 2019 07:50AM ● By Editor
By Nick Wognum of The Ely Echo - March 9, 2019

The third attempt at having all BWCA permit reservations done online went better than the first two but there were still many who were unable to get permits.

After a disastrous start on Jan. 27, the U.S. Forest Service had to cancel a second scheduled date before making the system available at 9 a.m. on Monday, March 4. This time the system didn’t crash but there were plenty of complaints from users who were shut out from getting permits for the 2019 season.

The Forest Service announced Thursday that nearly 10,000 permits were processedon Monday.

For those who weren’t so lucky, many posted their frustrations online.

Posting on Twitter was Lance Johnson who wrote, “The Forest Service wrecked the Boundary Waters permit application system. System is a complete joke and many locals who have gone for decades with their families were forced out.

“Sad thing is for the last ten years I have seen increasing numbers of empty campsites and far fewer paddle groups on Basswood. This is especially true when you continue past Washington Island, it’s empty.”

Misty Merhar of Ely appealed to U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber in her post.
“@PeteStauber Please, PLEASE bring back the lottery system!!! My husband and I didn’t get permits this morning. His internet wouldn’t let him log in at work and mine were issued as paddle, not motor!!! We work and live in Ely and can’t go on either of the 2 weekends we are off!!!”

One Ely applicant was able to find permits, but noted motor permits disappeared fast.
“I was able to reserve several day use motor permits. All motor permits through Prairie Portage were gone in about 40 minutes,” posted Linda Maki.

BWCA user Nancy Mcready posted, “We had difficulties as well. Had to go back to the walk me through page for each day use motors permit. Who did this website? One would think a split screen with the calendar and entry points would work better than going up & down to pick a date then an entry point.”

Sitting on Moose Lake, Bob LaTourell of LaTourell’s Moose Lake Outfitters said his business took a direct hit when customers were unable to get permits. “I had lots of people who couldn’t log in. There were some who tried to set up an account online and couldn’t or they had to reset their password and they couldn’t,” said LaTourell. “I have many, many guests who have been coming here for 20 years who won’t be coming this year,” said LaTourell.

Those empty cabins will have a direct effect on Ely’s economy. “For us not to be able to provide service to our customers that is a whole segment of visitors to Ely who won’t be here anymore,” said LaTourell. The answer is simple for LaTourell and many others. “We need to get the lottery system back,” he said.

Stauber has legislation to do just that. What he doesn’t have is the support of U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. Klobuchar, who is campaigning for president, has been largely silent since March 4 on the permit issue.

Smith issued the following statement, ““While I’m pleased that the new system is up and running, the unacceptable start-up problems should not have happened in the first place,” Sen. Smith said. “The BWCAW is critically important to the economic well-being of Northern Minnesota, and the new online reservation system needs to serve the needs of the businesses and residents who rely on it. I’ll continue to monitor the system to make sure it works in the long term.”

Ely BWCA user Ross Petersen said the system didn’t work for him on Monday. He believes the online system is discriminatory. “Poor people and rural people without good internet connections get screwed. Isn’t that discrimination?” Petersen asked. He said the online system required him to get a new password but both he and his wife were unable to do so.
“Both Carol and I were trying and we couldn’t get ours to work. After I tried that three times my internet went out. By the time I got back on, the one or two motor use camping permits I wanted for Basswood were all gone,” said Petersen.

Not able to access the system prior to it going live was a common complaint.

“I kept trying to get on and check it out to see how it all worked but I couldn’t until 9:02 a.m. That was a dumb thing not to have a tutorial.” LaTourell said he had over 20 hours of testing the site and still had problems. “We got kicked off on a couple permits we were trying to attain and I had 20 hours of testing the site for them,” said LaTourell. “To expect customers to have that level or expertise and go through that is not very realistic.”

Ely outfitter Dan Waters of Canadian Waters said this was another example of the Forest Service not listening to the users. Waters said to have all the BWCA permits go live on the system at the same time made no sense. He advocated for staggering the permit availability or do what Quetico Park does and make the permits available on a rolling basis five months prior to the date someone is looking for.

Both Waters and LaTourell said despite all of the testing and assurances the system was ready, there were still multiple issues on Monday.

“There was lots of little glitches with the system and that magnifies the problems,” said LaTourell. “When that happens and you only have a few minutes to figure it out it’s not good.”
LaTourell said the Forest Service has claimed up to 40 percent of the motor permits are not claimed and go unused. He believes that number is false and has asked for proof but has not received any data from the Forest Service.

“Our no show rate is seven percent and that’s what other cooperators have told me as well.
“They said there was 40 percent no show rate so these are not permits that are canceled . The 40 percent are not put back in the system. I don’t know where that number is coming from,” said LaTourell.

The Forest Service’s claim that a lottery is not needed also continues to be questioned.
“They said permits are not rare enough so they can’t use a lottery for that. But look how quickly the motor permits went Monday morning,” said LaTourell.

Motor permits for Basswood Lake were gone right away, both for day use and overnight trips.
“We need to get the lotter back. There’s a lottery process for the Easter Egg roll at the White House but we can’t get one for the Boundary Waters,” said LaTourell.