Crash and burn! Epic failure for BWCA online permit system

by Nick Wognum -

A massive failure of the U.S. Forest Service’s online reservation system Wednesday morning left potential users with complete frustration and no permits for the upcoming season.
The computer system by Recreation.gov crashed immediately after permits became available at 9 a.m. The Forest Service decided to not have a lottery for motor use permits on lakes like Basswood which are in high demand.
“This is going to be devastating to individuals and resort owners,” said Nancy McReady of Conservationists With Common Sense. “We asked where the public input was at the public meeting. We told them there was going to be problems. This is a major cluster you know what.”
The Forest Service announced shortly after 10 a.m. that the whole system was being shutdown.
“We will reverse all internal and external transactions of course for fairness and close BWCAW reservations until further notice,” said Ann Schwaller, Natural Resources Program Manager at the Superior Forest Supervisor’s Office in Duluth.
“Again, the Forest has done everything asked of us the last 14 months. We don’t know why this happened, but we will keep you updated as we are updated. All previous tests the last few months pointed to success for today.
“We are sick over it as well. A ton of work has gone into this; including working through furlough. We’ve done all we can to prepare and follow national direction,” said Schwaller.
The response in Ely was immediate. While people didn’t directly blame the local Kawishiwi District office, reports were over 300 people called in the first hour.
“The USFS BWCA permit system crashed and they are shutting it down because they can’t issue BWCA permits for this summer at this point. Since they tossed the lottery for day-use motor permits, there was such a rush it appears, their computers broke,” said Joe Baltich of Northwind Lodge in an online post.
“If you were planning on taking a motor trip to Basswood this summer, you probably won’t be going with a proper permit. I’m sure the Friends of the Boundary Waters are cheering right about now,” said Baltich.
“This was doomed to fail from the start and many people tried to tell them that,” said Greg Mosher of Ely.
Dave Merhar of Ely said the response from the Forest Service was unacceptable.
“That’s the worst type of excuse you could offer. They obviously did not do all they could have including listening to our local Ranger Station and local organizations trying to explain to them a better way to do it. Ultimately the parties who are responsible should be severely reprimanded and removed from a position of responsibility.”
Merhar pointed out there were Ely business owners who traveled to Minneapolis in hopes of being able to get a better internet connection in order to get permits. This has created a haves and have nots situation.
McReady hopes this will cause people to come together to show their displeasure for this and other actions by the Forest Service.
“Maybe this will strike up the bass and we will fight this in court. Everybody has been too complacent for too long. Maybe this is just what we needed, a big failure of the Forest Service screwing up on us,” said McReady.
Part of the problem may be related to a court decision that should have put more permits back in the system. CWCS was involved in a lawsuit over the Chain of Lakes issue where home and resort owners on Moose Lake had permanent permits to access the BWCA by motor boat.
A judge ordered the Forest Service to determine how many permits that would have been and put that amount back into the system. The Forest Service claimed the files had been lost and never accounted for the additional usage, much to the delight of groups like Friends of the Boundary Waters who fought against restoring motorboat usage to historic levels.
“It’s just like when they ignored the Chain of Lakes situation they were mandated to fix,” said McReady. “They probably won’t do anything about this either.”
Geography may have played a role in the SNAFU on Wednesday. People in Ely struggled to even get the website to show them how many permits were available.
“I’m assuming because we have a poor internet connection we couldn’t get as far as other people,” said Newt Nickerson of Ely. “I talked to someone in Arizona who got eight permits and had no problem getting them. When I went to the Forest Service office in Ely I was told that’s nothing, someone in Ohio got 10.”
Nickerson was left not knowing what would happen but he said there is only one logical solution.
“At this point it should be a lottery. There’s no other way it can be fair,” said Nickerson.
For BWCA user Bob Jalonen, he decided to steer away from the online route and called the reservation system on the phone at 9:02 a.m.
“All of my circle of buddies were applying online and none could get on via computer. I got on the phone and got in the queue where I was told it’ll be about 34 minutes. I got on at 50 minutes and talked to a human voice,” said Jalonen.
“She took down all of my information for a motor permit for Fall Lake and beyond. Then she told me she was going to put me on hold to enter it all into the computer. I thought she was doing that while we were talking. She came back on said, ‘Sorry!’”
For McReady, there may be only one remedy.
“This is a major screw up by the Forest Service. One that CWCS may just have to get people’s support and sue them,” said McReady.