New BWCA permit system under fire

Forest Service fields complaints in advance of Jan. 30 start date

by Tom Coombe -

A meeting on Tuesday did seemingly little to soothe the angst over upcoming changes to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness permit reservation system.
U.S. Forest Service officials convened the session and fielded an assortment of complaints from many in an audience of about 40 people at the agency’s Ely headquarters.
Opponents said the move to a nationwide, first-come, first-serve system will make it harder for local canoe outfitters to secure permits for their customers and for local residents to obtain day-use motor permits.
They also lamented data that showed as many as 40 percent of BWCAW permits go unused and lobbied, unsuccessfully, for those permits to be placed back into the system.
Forest Service said some of the concerns will be relayed to the contractor overseeing the permit system but gave no indication that the agency would reverse course on a system that “goes live” Jan. 30.
Gus Smith, the District Ranger based out of Ely, said the new system will also provide some benefits and put all users on an even playing field when seeking wilderness permits.
Smith and other Forest Service representatives also disputed charges, leveled by some in the audience, that permits are being taken by people or groups with no intention of using them.
“It’s not a group like the Friends of the Boundary Waters,” said Smith. “The no-shows are among us.”
Becky Manlove, who works out of the Ely office, said the Forest Service contacts those who don’t use their permits and have found no evidence of abuse.
“We see the names,” said Manlove. “We call them and ask them.”
In the midst of the no-show data, several speakers said it remains difficult to obtain permits and said the new system will be no improvement.
“We go up there and there aren’t any people,” said Ely area resident Nancy Mcready. “It seems like this system will make it harder for people who want to go up.”
Mcready suggested sanctions against those who fail to use their permits and pressed for the Forest Service to put unused permits back up for grabs, but agency officials contend they’re prohibited by law from doing so.
Opponents also predicted more problems when permit-seekers take to the internet to snatch up permits in late-January.
“By day two there won’t be any motorized day-use available,” charged Ross Petersen, a former Ely mayor.
Petersen and others also pointed to at-times spotty internet service in Ely as well as the lack of high-speed broadband internet around the area.
“It’s going to be Elyites that take it on the chin,” said Petersen.
Last year, the Forest Service announced the end to the permit lottery system and a move that puts BWCAW permitting in with permits for other national parks.
Permit-seekers must go online to, and follow the process outlined on that site.
Applicants must have an e-mail address, although those without one may obtain a permit through an outfitter or call by phone at 877-444-6777, once permits are made available Jan. 30.
The permit reservation center is based in Kentucky, and Forest Service officials say staff are trained on public land issues, and that by the time BWCAW permits are issued, the staff and system will have already gone through other “high-demand” permitting requests - including those for Yosemite National Park.
Smith said the system has benefits over the lottery process.
“Unlike the lottery there’s no reason to get more than you need,” said Smith.
Some outfitters, however, countered that the Jan. 30 start date is too early, and that some of their customers won’t have vacation schedules or be able to make plans at that point, leaving open the possibility that permits will be gone.
Alison LaTourell lamented a lack of involvement by local outfitters, adding “we’re the people who know the system best. The people in Duluth, how do they know?”
Forest Service representatives made note of the concerns, and said the system could be tweaked as it moves forward, similar to when changes were implemented earlier in the decade.
That did little to sway the skeptics, including Petersen who responded “it doesn’t help those of us that want to take our boats into Basswood next year.”