Mixed feelings arise after BWCA permit site goes back online

ELY, MN — The Boundary Waters reservation system is back online.

Back in January, the new website crashed, causing serious concerns among Boundary Waters-area businesses worried over their bottom dollar this summer season.

“Permit opener is an exciting day for us,” Ely Outfitting Company Owner Jason Zabokrtsky said. “It’s a little bit like Christmas because all the guest permits become available.”

For outfitters like Zobokrtsky, Monday was a busy day.

“We had as many people as we could reserving permits this morning, and we were doing it as fast as we could,” Zabokrtsky said.

Those booking permits were hit with high demand of people wanting to plan their trips to the Boundary Waters.

“It went smoothly,” Zabokrtsky said. “There were some glitches, but for a new system that was really totally new and rolled out for everybody today, it went smoothly.”

The new system first went online in January, but due technical issues crashed that same day. A new opening date was set, but then was pushed back again by the U.S. Forest Service.

“It’s better than it was, but it still needs some work,” Spirit of the Wilderness Outfitters Owner Ginny Nelson.

Since then, the U.S. Forest Service has been working with local outfitters to ensure the system was functioning again by March 4.

“There’s still some issues and I’m sure there’s still some people that weren’t able to get permits that thought, maybe they should’ve,” Nelson said.

Zabokrtsky says errors still in the system led to a handful of unsuccessful reservation attempts Monday.

“We don’t know what those errors are yet, but that’s just a fraction of 2-to-3-percent of the permits that we were trying to reserve,” Zabokrtsky said.

What’s important to outfitters, though, is that the system is back up and running. And, come this summer, visitors will still be pouring in.

“We’re still here for business. We’re still going to have a good summer season, regardless — disregarding the snow,” Nelson said. “But we definitely have had a roller-coaster with the Boundary Waters permit system.”

Meanwhile, Congressman Pete Stauber says he’s hearing from a handful of people Monday who are still frustrated with the reservation system.

Some people online complained of slow internet still not allowing them to reserve the permit they want.

Last week, Stauber introduced legislation hoping to bring the reservation system back to a lottery system, which was in place before the Forest Service changed it to a first-come, first-serve basis.

“Many people were concerned when the USFS made the ill-advised decision to forego the successful lottery system for a first-come, first-serve online system, and rightfully so. When the new reservation system crashed, my office was inundated with calls from constituents who were worried about the severe impact on their small business and the local economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism. The small businesses also expressed frustration that the USFS didn’t listen to their initial concerns and weren’t taking the users seriously.”

If passed, Stauber’s legislation would revert the permit reservation back to a lottery system by next year.

Gamiel Hall

Gamiel Hall

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