Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Better late than never: New BW permit system now working

Keith Vandervort
Posted 3/6/19

ELY - The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness reservation system went back online this week, after a couple of false starts, and things went fairly smoothly for local outfitters and permit …

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Better late than never: New BW permit system now working

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ELY - The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness reservation system went back online this week, after a couple of false starts, and things went fairly smoothly for local outfitters and permit seekers.

“There were some glitches, but for a new system that was rolled out for everybody, it went smoothly,” said Ely Outfitting Company owner Jason Zabokrtsky

Back in January when the reservation system crashed, local outfitters and resort owners worried it could seriously affect their summer season.

The new system, which included highly-sought-after motor permits on a first-come, first-served basis for the first time, went online on Jan. 30, but Forest Service officials shut it down after about an hour of operation due to technical problems. A new opening date was set for the end of February, but that date was pushed back again by the U.S. Forest Service as the operator of recreation.gov made improvements.

“Permit opener is an exciting day for us,” Zabokrtsky said. “It’s a little bit like Christmas because all the guest permits become available.”

Monday was a busy day at his Sheridan Street business. “We had as many people as we could reserving permits, and we were doing it as fast as we could,” he said.

“There were certainly some quirks and foibles with the new system, but they seemed of the variety a person might expect with the roll-out of a new and somewhat complicated online system,” Zabokrtsky said. “We were able to reserve permits for all of those who asked us to. I’m thrilled that the permit reservation system is back on track, and that our clients have their permits reserved and can now firm up their travel plans.” 

Zabokrstky said he encountered some issues through the day with permits showing as available but the system not allowing him to reserve them. “The Forest Service and vendor were working throughout the day to address the issues, and some of them were resolved by the end of the day,” he said.

The Superior National Forest office said on Twitter Monday that online reservations were working best but the call center may require users to call back during “extremely busy times.” The Forest Service did not comment on how the system was working overall.

Misty Merhar, of Ely, told Minnesota Public Radio News she tried on Monday to make Boundary Waters reservations for Basswood Lake. She was able to fill out the form, but said it was confusing and she ended up with the wrong type of permit. By the time she tried again the slots were all taken.

“My husband has been going up there for years with his dad and grandpa and started a tradition with my son. They like to go to the same campsite,” she said. “It’s a family tradition. To not be able to go just really sucks.”

Ely outfitter Spirit of the Wilderness made the following post Monday on Facebook:

“We have been booking permits this morning on the new BWCA permit website. Motor permits (day use and overnight) are pretty much taken for the summer. Overnight paddle permits still have availability for many dates. Some of the more popular dates are taken.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber said he heard from a “handful of people” on Monday who were still frustrated with the reservation system.

Stauber threw a wrench into the works last week, introducing legislation that would require the Forest Service to return to a lottery system for permit distribution by 2020.

The Forest Service scrapped the lottery system for the vast majority of Boundary Waters entry point permits several years ago without major incident. They retained the lottery for motor permits for five high-demand entry points, but opted to transition those this year to the same first-come, first-served basis that has been in place for other Boundary Waters permits for year.

The switch concerned many people in the Ely area, including some canoe outfitters, who voiced their frustrations to Forest Service officials at a public meeting in November, and again to Rep. Stauber last month.

Quota permits for the BWCAW may be reserved through Sept. 30.

The BWCAW, located on the Superior National Forest, is one of over 3,500 facilities across the country that utilizes Recreation.gov to manage their reservation processes. Full details on the reservation process are located at https://www.recreation.gov/permits/233396.

Minnesota Public Radio News contributed to this report.

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