Many months before the U.S. Forest Service capsized its launch of a new reservation system for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), Ely, Minn.-area resort owners, outfitters, guides and wilderness lovers were seething.

Forest Service leaders, they said, were excluding their input and ending a popular lottery for high-demand permits to enter a corner of the BWCA where motors are allowed. Instead — despite slower internet speeds in canoe country — those scarce entry passes were put up for grabs all at once under the new system.

If BWCA reservations go live again Feb. 27 (the Forest Service said the date is tentative) in a do-over of the failed launch on Jan. 30, there is little hope for the lottery system to be revived.

“If we hit a button at the same time, I lose,” BWCA outfitter Bob LaTourell said.

His lament from his family’s historic outpost on Moose Lake sums up the heart of an ongoing dispute that has strained the bond between the Forest Service and the legion of small businesses in canoe country that issue BWCA permits as “cooperators.” For a number of them, securing motorized permits for customers was a key way to earn their business. Losing the lottery system for motorized permits means losing money.

“We book a lot of permits for people and there was no public meeting of any kind,” said Ginny Nelson, who operates Spirit of the Wilderness Outfitters in Ely. “It was just a decision by the Forest Service that the lottery wasn’t needed.”

Five or six years ago, most, if not all, Boundary Waters permits were issued via lottery for trips between May 1 and Sept. 30. More than 100,000 people a year applied for about 26,000 permits to a range of entry points throughout the so-called quota season.

When the Forest Service shifted to a first-come, first-served reservation system, permit applications immediately were accepted or denied based on crowd-control quotas. But a subset of those permits — about 3,500 of them good for motorized trips into Fall and Basswood lakes — were set aside for continued distribution by lottery. Resort owners, outfitters and guides could apply over a prolonged period for any number of permits for confirmed customers.

The winners of those motorized day-use and motorized camping permits would typically rent cabins or equipment from the cooperators who scored them a permit. In 2017, 12,500 applications were made for the 3,500 permits.

Cooperators warned that a first-come, first-served distribution method could overwhelm the computer system or deplete all the permits in a matter of hours. The Forest Service responded by saying the new reservation system would be less complicated, consistent, fair and remove the need for a separate process. There was also evidence that the lottery system sometimes awarded multiple permits to different people in the same groups, resulting in no-shows.

Forum draws a crowd

U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents northeastern Minnesota, said Forest Service cooperators who relied on the lottery system to obtain motorized entry permits for customers aren’t the only ones dissatisfied with the government’s handling of changes to the reservations system.

Stauber flew from Washington, D.C., to the Ely area last weekend to conduct a public forum on the initial failure of the reservation system and the discontinuation of the lottery for motorized permits. Close to 150 people showed up, he said, many who were disgruntled by the lack of public engagement by the Forest Service.

For one thing, cooperators didn’t get an advance look at the computer-based reservation system for the BWCA, nor were they allowed to test it. Booz Allen Hamilton, a technology consultant, is the contractor on the project.

“What’s in place is not what was put forth by the citizens,” Stauber said in an interview.

Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Co., said the failure of the new system has caused a rift between the Forest Service and its cooperators. Officials assured the local business community that the new system would work.

Instead, the system crashed fewer than 75 minutes into the “go live” date, reinforcing doubts held by outfitters and resort owners about the project’s management. Zabokrtsky said cooperators received only scant training for issuing permits on the new system and were misinformed about the information they would need to successfully book a trip for a client.

The one-month delay in being able to book a 2019 trip to the BWCA has already driven away some of this year’s large-group customers, he said.

“Cooperators reserve more permits using the reservation system than the Forest Service,” Zabokrtsky wrote in a complaint letter to federal officials. “Despite this, and despite repeated requests, I am unaware of any significant engagement of cooperators in the development or beta testing of the new system.”

He said in an interview the “breach of trust” between cooperators and the Forest Service is going to take some time to heal.