ELY— Minnesota’s Eighth District Congressman, Rep. Pete Stauber, hosted a forum at the Grand Ely Lodge on Saturday to give stakeholders the opportunity to express their concerns regarding the …
ELY— Minnesota’s Eighth District Congressman, Rep. Pete Stauber, hosted a forum at the Grand Ely Lodge on Saturday to give stakeholders the opportunity to express their concerns regarding the recent failure of the federal permit reservations system for the Boundary Waters. The Forest Service opted to suspend the system on Jan. 30, barely an hour after it went live for the season, when it failed to function as designed.
The U.S. Forest Service anticipates reopening the reservations system for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness quota permits on Wednesday, Feb. 27.
More than 100 people attended the mostly-civil discussion on Saturday. A few made wild accusations, while others scolded Forest Service officials and complained they knew the new permit system was doomed to failure. Other stakeholders offered solutions to make for a smooth transition to a new way of doing things.
“We deeply regret the difficulty this has caused, and I want to thank the members of the community who are working with us to make this transition to an online reservation system successful,” said Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins. “Our goal is to ensure the reservation system provides a fair and open means for the public to visit the Boundary Waters and support the local businesses that depend on this special place.”
The BWCAW is one of more than 3,500 facilities across the country that utilizes Recreation.gov to manage their permit reservation processes. Within the national reservation system, customers can simultaneously apply for and secure a reservation for a permit.
“The BWCA reservation system failure has already had a massive impact on business owners and families across Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District and beyond,” Stauber said. “Since the website crashed, my office heard from countless outdoor enthusiasts along with outfitters who are concerned with their ability to provide timely customer service and the harmful impact this crash could have on Northern Minnesota’s local economy.”
When asked what he hoped to accomplish at the hour-long listening session, Stauber replied, “The BWCA is a crown jewel not only in the state of Minnesota but this entire nation and internationally as well, so we have to get it right. We have outfitters in need in Minnesota. That’s their livelihood. Many here feel like the Forest Service was not listening to them. I think the Forest Service representatives heard that loud and clear.”
The online system, which has been in existence for about a decade, was expanded this year to include permits for motor use on certain high-demand lakes. Those permits had previously been allotted through a lottery, but Forest Service spokesperson Kris Reichenbach said agency staff felt the lottery was no longer necessary since those seeking reservations can now see permit availability instantly with the online program.
A panel of speakers who joined Stauber in the discussion included several outfitters: John Fredrickson, Ginny Nelson, Jason Zabokrtsky, and Bob LaTourell.
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak, Ely Chamber of Commerce director Eva Sebesta, Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins, and Malony Glossa, a deputy forester for the eastern region, were also part of the panel.
Local BWCA fishing guide Ross Petersen said the new system that operates on a first-come, first-served premise is discriminatory to poor and rural people. “If you don’t have high-speed Internet, and this was very clear during this last fiasco, you are not going to have the same access to permits as the people in the metro areas and the people who have access to high-speed Internet.”
He also complained that the Forest Service did not take any input from local stakeholders “until the new system couldn’t be stopped.”
Dan Waters, owner of Ely’s Canadian Waters, Inc., who claimed he was the oldest outfitter in the building, said he doesn’t expect anything to change. “For 55 years, there has been very little that the Forest Service has done that has come from suggestions of outfitters and cooperators, and I don’t look for that happening this time. You are looking for a quick answer again and it’s probably going to be an abortion of a fix.”
He asked for the Forest Service to listen to the people who depend on the BWCA for their livelihood. “I wouldn’t have your job for a million bucks,” Waters said.
Nancy McReady, president of Conservationists with Common Sense, repeated her request to have Ely considered as a location for a call center for the Forest Service permit reservation system. “We have some pretty good workers here that have a good record and we could really use some good jobs here,” she said. “There’s gotta be some way to address the issue rather than taking away the lottery.”
Many other citizens expressed their distrust of the Forest Service and believed the lottery system should return.
Former St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman said he has no faith that the Internet-based reservation system will be successful.
He also addressed that with the lottery system, at least 38 percent of those who obtained permits didn’t show up to use their permits on the specified date and entry point. “That 38 percent purposely don’t show up,” he said. “This comes from the environmental community that typically have the permits and they’re trying to keep people out of the Boundary Waters. They get those motor permits and they don’t show up. They don’t want motors in the Boundary Waters.”
He said the issue won’t change with the Internet permit reservation system. “I’ll guarantee that you’ll have another 38 percent that don’t show up because they are bought by the environmental community that has more money that anybody in this room,” Forsman said. “They can buy as many permits as they want and they don’t have to worry about that poor person whose dad or grandpa used to fish on Basswood Lake, or Moose Lake or the Chain of Lakes.”
Stauber said he’s concerned about the economic impact the BWCA has on the Ely community. “The shutdown of the BWCA online permit system has economically impacted local businesses who rely on the hundreds and thousands of tourists who come out every year to enjoy the Boundary Waters,” he said.
About 150,000 tourists enjoy the Boundary Waters annually which brings in $57 million in revenue according to one recent study.
“Those of us who live here know that we had restaurants that closed last year and never reopened. “I don’t know how we got here but we have another MNLARS (state drivers license) system on our hands,” Novak said. “Where was the field testing? All I see is the reactive. Where is the proactive? Our economy today is based on tourism. We have a government that is supposed to work for us. Basswood Lake used to be our playground. Now we are restricted from going to our playground.”
The Forest Service’s Glossa tried to offer reassurance. “The entire community here in Ely, and our cooperators, are a big part of how we do business out here,” Glossa said. “We are going to have some beta testing with our cooperators to make sure we are addressing some of the issues that they see. We are working with a technical team that we’ve got to fix this.”
Forest Service officials were asked about a back-up plan if the re-launch of the reservation system does not work, and how a second possible government shutdown, that could happen on Friday, Feb. 15, will impact the process. Glossa said the new system won’t go live without new testing and training.
“We have the opportunity of prior-year funding to continue to support the system and we are committed to doing that. We will find a way to continue to support this system even if we are furloughed,” she said.
“Working to rebuild your trust is going to be a daily thing,” she said. “Our highest priority in the entire region is to make this go.”