Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

BWCAW permit fiasco leaves business owners steamed

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 2/7/19

REGIONAL— Last week’s collapse of the U.S. Forest Service’s new online Boundary Waters permit reservations system has put the federal agency back in the hot seat with dozens of resort owners …

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BWCAW permit fiasco leaves business owners steamed

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REGIONAL— Last week’s collapse of the U.S. Forest Service’s new online Boundary Waters permit reservations system has put the federal agency back in the hot seat with dozens of resort owners and area outfitters who had hoped to line up permit reservations for the coming season when the system went live on Jan. 30.

For now, the Forest Service has offered no date certain when a workable reservation system will be up and running, which has sparked plenty of anxiety for area businesses that rely on serving wilderness users for their livelihood.

“We don’t have the old system and we don’t have their new system,” said Betsie Vosburgh, owner of Vosburgh Custom Cabin Rentals on Moose Lake. “They left us with nothing.”

Forest Service spokesperson Kris Reichenbach said the Forest Service and its reservations contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, or BAH, were working to get an improved system up and running as quickly as possible. “I don’t think any of us want to put a tentative date out there,” said Reichenbach. “We want to make sure we’ve identified any other problems and the system is ready to go.”

Reichenbach said the Forest Service will give the public and businesses that rely on Boundary Waters reservations plenty of advanced notice before the system goes live.

Outfitters and resort owners have expressed displeasure for months with the change in the reservation system, which eliminated the use of a lottery to allocate the limited number of motor use permits issued between May and September each year. Local resort owners, especially, feared that too many of the permits would be snapped up within minutes by users with faster Internet connections than are typically available to most businesses in northern St. Louis and Lake counties.

Instead, the new system all but collapsed within minutes of going live and was quickly shut down by the Forest Service. The agency has since rescinded those permits that some users were able to obtain in the hour before the Forest Service shut the system down.

Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Co. said he and his staff logged on to the new reservation system promptly at 9 a.m. last Wednesday, when it was scheduled to go live. “We used two computers and started the process and almost immediately, the initial site screen froze,” he said. “There was some information on the first page, but most of it was blank,” he said. “We did get one permit reserved on each computer by 9:45 a.m. But by just after 10 a.m. we were notified by the USFS that the entire reservation server was shut down.”

Zabokrtsky was clearly frustrated by the system failure, and he questioned why the Forest Service hadn’t done more to test the new system with outside users. “The USFS has blamed server issues for the failure on Wednesday, but the larger concern I have is in the failure to put a permit system together over the past year, without any input from the cooperators, the outfitters and resort owners. We asked but they refused to include us. I’m hopeful the USFS makes this a priority. I want the USFS to succeed.”

Vosburgh, who called the new system “nothing but a big mess,” agreed. “The (USFS) did not listen to us or take our facts into consideration. So that leaves us right now with no reservation system.”

The Vosburghs typically outfit many parties of anglers with motorboats on the chain of lakes and the few other BWCA lakes that allow motors. “All I ask is that they give us back the lottery system or the two-thirds of the permits they took away from the chain of lakes area back in 2004,” she said.

Ross Petersen has been a fishing guide in the Ely area for the past 18 years and works closely with several resorts in the area. “This permit reservation system is their livelihood,” he said.

“I had doubts that the new USFS permit system would work,” Petersen said. “Even if it did work, my fear was that all the motorized boat permits would be gone in a matter of minutes.”

He noted that the sub-par Internet system in and around the Ely area put the whole region at a disadvantage when it came time to log on to the reservation system. “I figured everyone else not near Ely would get all the permits. From what I heard, that actually happened to a small degree. I think we are lucky that system did crash.”

Petersen was hopeful that the region’s legislators were going to put a stop to the roll out of the reservation system before it went live last week. “Everybody but the Forest Service knew the new system would probably not work. It was a very dumb idea,” he said.

The fiasco has attracted the attention of members of Congress, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar as well as Congressman Pete Stauber, who sent representatives to a meeting this week between Forest Service officials and area outfitters and resorts, known collectively as “cooperators.”

Forest Service officials and representatives of the private company that designed the reservation system listened to the concerns of just over a half dozen area cooperators during a meeting in Ely this week. They provided an explanation of the technical problems that plagued the system but left plenty of questions in the minds of business owners now affected by the breakdown.

Zabokrtsky, who took part in the meeting, said he wasn’t satisfied with the contractor’s explanation of what went wrong. He said the contractors cited a defective caching system, but later blamed the collapse of the system on a “cascading problem of other things,” without providing details.

Yet Zabokrtsky questions whether resolving the technical issues will fix the problem. “While the technical issues are serious, the interface issues are appalling,” stated Zabokrtsky. “Many of these failures could have been addressed before the original go-live date had cooperators been included in a process of beta testing the new system, or at least had the opportunity to view the new system and provide feedback with a reasonable time to fix the problems.”

So will the Forest Service allow cooperators to test the system before it goes live? Reichenbach said the idea is “being discussed.” But she declined to say whether the contractor will face any repercussions for the flaws in the system. “Right now we’re focused on getting it running the way it’s supposed to,” she said.

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