ST. PAUL, Minn. — The U.S. Forest Service says it has finally fixed the bugs in a new online reservation system for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness travelers that crashed shortly after its first attempted launch last month. It's preparing to relaunch it at 9 a.m. CST on March 4.
Outfitters and other businesses on the edge of the northeastern Minnesota wilderness area were irritated that the Forest Service didn't consult them before it decided last year to move away from a lottery for awarding permits for the most highly sought entry points and dates. It switched instead to a first-come, first-served online system akin to ticket sites that get bombarded with traffic when a hot new show goes on sale.
The system didn't work when it first went live Jan. 30. The 1,200 to 1,300 people who managed to make reservations back then lost them when the system failed and will have to try again with everyone else. Here's a look at some of the issues:
WHAT THE SYSTEM DOES
The Forest Service limits the number of parties that can enter the Boundary Waters through the most popular entry points and dates so that travelers don't get too bunched up in the wilderness. For the most coveted permits — for overnight trips using motors on the few lakes where they're allowed — the Forest Service used the lottery system through last year. It had already switched to a computerized system for most other permits.
Outfitters and resorts that serve Boundary Waters visitors regularly help their guests obtain permits. Many of those business owners thought the old lottery system worked just fine and gave everybody an equal chance. They warned that the crush would overwhelm the new system. They were right.
THE PROBLEM AND THE FIX
It was "just a technical problem with the software," Lisa Radosevich-Craig, who works in external affairs for the Superior National Forest, said Friday. "Technicians and contractors have figured it out." She said they're confident of a smooth launch when the updated system goes live again, and that testing will continue.
Addressing a common complaint from before, the Forest Service held an online training session Friday with its "cooperators," the businesses that help visitors get permits, to make sure that they understand how to use the system.
"Confidence is waning," said Willy Vosburgh of Vosburgh's Custom Cabin Rentals on Moose Lake near Ely. He said his customers are "frustrated and upset." He also pointed out that the Forest Service had set the relaunch for next Wednesday, then announced Thursday a delay by one more week to March 4.
Vosburgh said businesses will have to compete for the limited number of permits with everyone else who will be trying to access the system from home or work when it goes live. A party of seven might have everyone try from their own computers when the reservation period opens, but Vosburgh said businesses like his have to access the system via special credit card readers. He said he can have only three, they cost $400 apiece and they can only be used to buy permits.
U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, whose district includes the Boundary Waters, have taken the Forest Service to task for the hardships caused to outfitters and tourists.
"The ongoing failure to restore their ability to make reservations is simply unacceptable and needs to be solved as soon as possible," the senators said Friday in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the Forest Service. And they asked him to inform them "how the problem came to be and how you plan to hold the contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, responsible for the damage inflicted on outfitters and residents in our state."
Stauber said his office had been inundated by callers with legitimate concerns about the impacts on businesses and the local economy.
"While I understand and appreciate that the USFS wants the relaunch of this new reservation system to be a successful one, we are another week closer to the busy season at the BWCA," he said in a statement.