BWCAW users vent in Ely

ON THE MICROPHONE at the BWCA meeting Saturday morning was long-time Ely outfitter Dan Waters.

by Tom Coombe -

Frustration was evident Saturday morning in Ely as business owners, area leaders and longtime wilderness visitors vented about the crash-and-burn of the U.S. Forest Service’s BWCAW permit reservation system.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber convened the session and Forest Service officials were on hand, apologizing for the almost immediate failure of the online system when it went line Jan. 30, and promising that a Feb. 27 do-over will go much better.
They faced a skeptical audience of about 75 people at the Grand Ely Lodge, one that didn’t hold back.
Dan Waters, the area’s longest active canoe outfitter, told Forest Service leaders that “maybe it’s time you start listening to people who work with the system on a daily basis.”
Waters also isn’t convinced that the second launch of the permit reservation system will be successful.
“It’s probably going to be, and excuse my language, an abortion of a fix and we’ll be right back where we are,” said Waters.
Some in the audience pressed for the Forest Service to scrap the new system entirely and instead go back to the lottery system that was in place through 2018.
They have some powerful allies in that quest including U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D) and Tina Smith (D).
Peter Makowski, a Smith aide, read a letter from both Senators that asked the agency “that the lottery be reinstated this year.”
Makowski said that the lawmakers had heard from “tourists and small business owners,” among others, and charged that “the failure of the online system has created a crisis.”
Stauber, who was sworn into office this month, expressed similar sentiments in advance of the Ely meeting and scheduled it for people to voice their concerns.
“Small business is the engine that drives our economy,” said Stauber, noting the impact that the system failure had on local canoe outfitters. “This is as serious as it gets.”
Forest Service Supervisor Connie Cummins was present at the meeting and told those gather that “I want to tell you how much we deeply regret the problem this has caused all of you and the general public.”
She outlined a multi-step process that will include beta testing and training with commercial operators in advance of the Feb. 27 “go live” date for the permit system.
“We will be assured by that time that it’s going to work,” said Cummins.
Despite widespread opposition in the Ely area, expressed at a November meeting with Forest Service officials, the agency went ahead with plans to issue permits through its recreation.gov website as well as a telephone call center.
The system crashed within the first hour, with the Forest Service announcing within that the entire system was being shut down,and that all internal and external transactions would be voided.
Fallout was immediate and grabbed the attention of elected officials ranging from Stauber to local leaders.
“If Amazon came out with this type of rollout they’d be out of business within two days,” said Ely Mayor Chuck Novak.
Novak added that “our economy is dependent on tourism today” and urged the federal government to take action.
“Government is supposed to work for us,” he said.
Ely area resident Becky Rom offered an array of suggestions for a successful rollout, including public reporting of beta testing, clear instructions to the public, and the name of the person responsible for the second attempt.
Local canoe outfitter Jason Zabokrtsky said “this was probably a lot more predictable that it would fail.... They really did not involve people in the process to get a successful solution.”
Virginia Nelson, another local outfitter concurred and said “it just should not have gone live when it did.”
Nelson also asked for a back-up plan in case the system fails again Feb. 27.
Cummins said the complaints revealed some “hard truths” that agency officials are addressing.
The agency is working on several fronts to ensure a successful rollout. Officials addressed their work, which has included private meetings with local outfitters, as well as testing of the system.
The promises and assurances were largely met with skepticism, with complaints spilling to other areas including data that shows as many as 40 percent of BWCAW permits go unused.
Mike Forsman, a former county commissioner and Ely mayor and council member, reiterated a familiar charge that some BWCAW motor permits are purposely taken - and not used - by environmental advocates opposed to motor use in the wilderness.
“They are trying to keep people out of the Boundary Waters,” said Forsman.“They can buy as many permits as they want.”
Some area residents have lobbied, unsuccessfully, for unused permits to be put back into the system.
Another former Ely mayor, Ross Petersen, said he was concerned that the online system “is not fair to poor people and rural people.”
Pointing to the lack of reliable high-speed internet service in the Ely area, Petersen charged that local residents are at a disadvantage when competing for permits with people who live in urban areas with high-speed internet.
“People who are economically disadvantaged are being ripped off,” said Petersen. “The system is set up to help wealthier people”
While no decisions came out of the session, Stauber called it important to the process.
“This is about trying to get it right,” said Stauber. “The U.S. Forest Service works for we the people. Things need to change. The government is you.”