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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

New permit system worries Ely resort owners, outfitters

Resort owners fear that end to the lottery could leave them without permits for guests

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/10/18

ELY—Several changes to the way the federal government issues permits for travel in the Boundary Waters are raising concerns among some outfitters and resort owners here. Those changes include an …

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New permit system worries Ely resort owners, outfitters

Resort owners fear that end to the lottery could leave them without permits for guests


ELY—Several changes to the way the federal government issues permits for travel in the Boundary Waters are raising concerns among some outfitters and resort owners here. Those changes include an end to the lottery system that used to govern the awarding of high demand permits, such as for day motor-use, as well as a new requirement that complicates the designation of an alternative trip leader.

Currently, permits for wilderness travel in the BWCAW and on other federal lands are issued through the National Recreation Reservation System, which is a private contractor. According to Forest Service spokesperson Kris Reichenbach, the changes are intended to address privacy, security, financial, and program requirements of the new website, which launched on Oct. 1.

“The new platform has stronger security controls, better protection of Personally Identifiable Information (PII), and increased fraud protection,” said Reichenbach in a press release. In addition, will no longer store credit card information.

The cost of making a permit reservation will also be changing, although in this case it will be cut from the current $10 fee to six dollars for every permit subject to quota.

That’s all mostly good news. It’s some of the other details that have rankled outfitters and resort owners who use the reservation system to access permits for their customers.

Willy Vosburgh, who operates Vosburgh’s Custom Cabin Rentals on Moose Lake, is most concerned about his ability to access motor-use permits for his guests given the elimination of the lottery system. In the past, resort owners and outfitters who cater to motor users, primarily fishermen, have had a month to fill out and submit applications for the lottery, which was manageable even for a mom and pop operation. Vosburgh acknowledged that the lottery was always a gamble, but it usually guaranteed him enough permits to meet the needs of his clients. Come next January, when the reservations for the 2019 season go live, Vosburgh expects a mad dash to snap up the available quota and worries that his small resort will be at a big disadvantage. “It’s going to become like a land grab,” he said. “And it will put us at a disadvantage to those with better Internet.”

Vosburgh said the Internet service provided by Frontier Communications out at Moose Lake is both slow and intermittent. If it goes out the morning that the permitting goes live, he worries he could lose out on an entire season of permits.

He said he hasn’t been pleased with the suggestion by some Forest Service officials that he come to town the morning the reservations go live, and round up a few helpers with computers to ensure that he can get enough permits to operate. “Unfortunately, the Internet in Ely is pretty slow, too,” he said.

According to Vosburgh, Forest Service officials have indicated that the shift away from the lottery was meant to save money, since the private company that operates the reservation system charges the Forest Service for every lottery application received. The Forest Service started passing those costs on to wilderness users last year, but it’s unclear if those fees fully cover the Forest Service’s cost.

But what little money the Forest Service might save from the change could well be overshadowed, according to Vosburgh, by the lost business for resorts like his. “Their financial gain may well come at our expense,” he said. “We’re definitely expecting the worst.”

Adding to the frustration, said Vosburgh, is another change requiring resorts and outfitters using the system to purchase a new type of credit card reader for every computer they use for reservations, at a cost of $371 plus shipping, in order to process credit card transactions through the system.

Other impacts less certain

The phase-out of the lottery is less significant for outfitters who cater exclusively to paddlers in the Boundary Waters, since so many more permits are available. “For us, it’s not a big deal,” said Ely outfitter Jason Zabokrtsky. “We may only have a couple customers in any year who don’t get their first choice in the lottery,” he said.

But Zabokrtsky said he’s still scratching his head over another change, that now requires trip leader alternates to set up accounts on the federal reservation system and confirm their willingness to serve as alternate trip leader within 72 hours. The impact of the change isn’t that clear, according to Zabokrtsky, who said it’s pretty rare that the primary trip leader has to cancel out. Even so, he said he’d still like to know why such a change was necessary. “It seems like they were trying to fix some problem, but we just don’t know what it is,” he said.

Like a lot of outfitters, Zabokrtsky said he’d like to see the Forest Service do a better job of communicating with its “cooperators,” which includes businesses that operate under federal permits to provide commercial services, like outfitting, guiding, or towing, in the wilderness.

Zabokrtsky said he always encourages customers to include as many alternate trip leaders as possible, which used to only require listing a name. That won’t be as easy under the change, since any alternate trip leader will have to have an email account and be willing to establish their own account on the federal reservations system.

“It’s a little burdensome,” said Zabokrtsky.

Sign of the times?

Officials on the Superior National Forest acknowledge they share some of the frustration expressed by Boundary Waters cooperators. “We agree it’s a bummer,” said Kawishiwi District Ranger Gus Smith, noting that the Forest Service has explored some options for helping local cooperators finance some of the upfront costs, like the new credit card readers.

Yet Smith said the need for security is pretty clear given the prevalence of computer hacking these days. “Since I’ve been in Ely, my records at OPM [Office of Personnel Management) have been hacked twice,” he said.

At the same time, he notes that the Boundary Waters is fairly unique in the country for the very large number of cooperators that operate within the federal reservation system and who actually issue permits. As a part of that system, Smith said, it’s essential that the cooperators’ computer systems are secure as well, which the new card readers make possible.

As for the phaseout of the lottery, Smith said lotteries are now being reserved exclusively for permits that are extremely limited. “The permits here, even the motor permits, really aren’t that rare,” said Smith, noting that nearly 40 percent of them ultimately go unused by people who reserve them.

There was a time when the permit system for the Boundary Waters was run by the Forest Service and was, by far, the biggest reservation system within the federal agency. “We used to be the big fish in a small pool,” said Smith. But since the entire federal reservations system went national, the Boundary Waters is just a small part of a massive system that now includes reservations at national parks that see millions of visitors annually. “That means we have rules that have to apply to everyone,” said Smith. “Our own staff isn’t happy about it either. We still issue about 3,000 permits ourselves every year and we have to use the same system.”


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