The U.S. Forest Service on Monday fixed its failed reservation system for trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), but ending what was a 33-day delay to the booking season didn’t silence critics in the Ely area.
Outfitters, resort owners, guides and residents of canoe country say the online computer system still has flaws. In addition, some stakeholders continue to clamor for the return of a lottery system for the distribution of highly coveted permits that grant motorboat access to select corners of the wilderness.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents northeastern Minnesota, said he is still hearing cries of frustration from business owners and local residents who dislike the first-come, first-serve reservations system. Slower computer connections put them at a disadvantage in the race for high-demand BWCA trips, including canoe trips on popular lakes, at prime times, he said.
On Monday, the bulk of motorized permits were snapped up by online buyers in a flash.
“They were selling out pretty fast,” said Kerry Davis, owner of White Iron Beach Resort in Ely. “If I was a wilderness guide and was trying to book trips for 15 clients, I would have gotten only a fraction of what I wanted.”
Said Bob LaTourell, owner of LaTourell’s Moose Lake Outfitters in Ely: “It’s fair and equitable only if you are a computer whiz. By the time you figure it out, the permits are gone.”
Stauber said the old BWCA lottery system gave outfitters a chance to attract customers by applying for permits on their behalf over a month’s time. Not being able to provide that service is driving some BWCA regulars away, Stauber said.
“Outfitters are simply not happy with it,” said Stauber, who has a bill in Congress to bring back the lottery. “It’s hard on our economy and it’s not right.”
LaTourell said a considerable number of BWCA visitors aren’t returning this year because they couldn’t navigate the computer system in time to obtain a motorized permit for their preferred time and place.
“Not having the lottery pretty much eliminates our ability to serve our customers,” he said.
Kris Reichenbach, a spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest, said lottery distribution of BWCA entry permits has been phased out over a period of years. The only trips allocated by lottery last year were for motorboat access — a fraction of the 50,000 total permits available each year from May 1 to Sept. 30.
She said the new computer platform supporting BWCA reservations at recreation.gov still has “bumps.” But Monday’s relaunch overcame previous server problems that caused a sudden shutdown of the system when it first went live Jan. 30. She said the retooled system handled a crush of 8,500 transactions in the first six hours, including many transactions that purchased multiple permits.
“The system got a good test,” Reichenbach said. “Even with the overall success yesterday, we are working with the technical team, contractor and agency staff, to continue to make improvements.”
She emphasized that even though many high-demand BWCA entry permits already have been snatched up for the season, a plethora of canoe permits and some motorized permits still can be booked under no deadline.
“Try a different part of the Boundary Waters,” Reichenbach said. “You might just find a new favorite.”
Ginny Nelson, owner of Spirit of the Wilderness Outfitters in Ely, said the online distribution of canoe permits under the new system “is kind of standard.”
But there’s still a fair amount of work to be done to make the interface more user-friendly, she said.
Some people were pushed off the system because they were using a web browser that wasn’t compatible, Nelson said. Others got to the checkout page only to be stopped because of unspecified “errors” in the data fields they filled out.
“There were still some glitches,” said Nelson, president of the Ely Area Tourism Bureau. “I think it depended on how computer-savvy you were.”
Another shortcoming of the new reservation system was a shortage of operators to handle orders by phone. The Forest Service said many callers were advised to hang up and call back to avoid long wait times.
Nelson said a staff member at her shop waited 35 minutes for an operator to take his call. By then, the entry permit he wanted already was gone.
“Talking to different outfitters and resorts, the results on Monday were a mixed bag,” she said.
Nelson said certain users of the computer system who were adept Monday loaded up on permits that might or might not be returned to the system.
“People were just grabbing stuff,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll cancel some of those.”