Ginny Nelson’s business outfitting Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness trips was one of many thrown into chaos in January when a new online system for reserving a chunk of popular boating permits in the BWCA failed on its opening day.
“We all had some doubts that it could handle the amount of traffic that it might get on that very first day when the 9 o’clock hour hit,” Nelson said. “So the website crashed, and what that means is that nobody could book permits.”
Since then, the federal government’s switch from a lottery system to a first-come, first-served website for motor and paddle permits has caused even more headaches at Nelson’s shop, Spirit of the Wilderness, in Ely. A rush on permits when the system re-launched in March meant she couldn’t book as many for customers as she once did. Plus, glitches and problems have slowed the permitting process and eaten up more staff time, she said.
The U.S. Forest Service says it needs to iron out some issues to help businesses and boaters, but that it has moved on from the lottery system. Even so, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, wants to go an entirely different route, largely in the name of helping outfitters who he said were wronged by the federal government.
Since February, he’s been pushing a bill that would switch all reservations in the BWCA back to a lottery system, clashing with the Trump administration in the process. Most reservations haven’t been on the lottery system since 2012. But Stauber said a lottery cuts the chances of a system crash and “gives everybody the fair and equal opportunity” to get a permit.
His efforts have inched along in Congress with some support from fellow Republicans, though no DFLers have signed on to the bill. “The way we were doing it, it may not have been perfect,” Stauber said. “But it’s much better than what we have now.”
The demise of the lottery
Historically, permits for the BWCA were handed out through a lottery system. But in 2012, Superior National Forest switched to a first-come, first-served system, though permits for five entry points on Moose and Fall lakes stayed in the lottery system. Motorboats are allowed in the spots, which Nelson described as a “hot commodity,” especially for day trips.
People could file applications ahead of time for the permits. And business that book reservations for visitors — known in local parlance as cooperators — could submit bunches at a time for customers. For outfitters, that’s an important part of business. Often those customers pay for gear and logistics help on a trip, and rely on the expertise of the outfitter for their knowledge of the BWCA.
That leftover lottery system changed for the first time this year. People instead had to sign up and compete with others for the fastest application. On Jan. 30, when permits went on sale, Recreation.gov crashed. The Forest Service blamed the issue on server problems.
When the site eventually did re-launch in March, Nelson said motor permits for the boating areas for the summer were snatched up immediately. She said the new system had tradeoffs, such as people getting permits who hadn’t been as successful before. But there was plenty of frustration.
Backlash sparks a bill
At listening sessions after the launch, outfitters said they couldn’t book nearly as many trips as they had in the past for those popular entry points since they could not submit applications ahead of time. Many customers had to reserve on their own, which meant that businesses and customers who were less computer savvy were at a disadvantage. Those with slow internet, which Nelson said is a problem in Ely, faced even steeper challenges.
Nelson said the Forest Service has also appeared unprepared for those challenges in conversations with outfitters. “What happens if the internet is out here in Ely — which a good chunk of the permits are happening on the go-live date — what’s the backup plan for that?” Nelson said she asked. “Or are you just saying to the businesses here, ‘Tough luck, you should have been somewhere else.’”
At a recent congressional hearing on his bill, Stauber bristled at those responses from the Forest Service, saying it showed the government didn’t work with local businesses to roll out the new system. At the hearing, Acting Associate Deputy Chief of the Forest Service Frank Beum told Stauber he was “not aware” of problems with limited internet access. Stauber said he heard from people who drove to the Twin Cities multiple times in freezing cold weather to try to catch the permit launches.
Stauber’s bill would shift the entire permitting system back to a lottery, not just the segment of entry points that switched over this year. “The economy is fragile in Ely and in Grand Marais and so when you have groups of people not coming up there to the Boundary Waters on either entry point you lose economic revenue,” Stauber said.
The Forest Service declined to comment on Stauber’s bill, but a spokeswoman forwarded Beum’s written testimony from the July hearing. In that testimony, Beum said moving back to a lottery system would not be a simple undertaking. He said the Forest Service does not have access to the old lottery system since it changed to a new vendor for the first-come, first-served one.
Beum also said the newer reservation system “provides the best opportunity for members of the public to obtain day-use motor permits at the five entry points previously under the lottery system.”
Stauber goes it alone
So far, only one member of Congress from Minnesota has joined Stauber in his push to reinstate the lottery: Rep. Tom Emmer, the 6th District Republican. Stauber said he is hoping that DFL Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar will introduce a companion measure in the Senate.
Klobuchar sent a letter to the Forest Service in February asking the agency to reinstate the lottery for permits this year at the five boating entry points that switched to first-come, first-served. But she declined to comment on Stauber’s bill. Meanwhile, Molly Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Smith, said the senator will be “following the bill closely as Rep. Stauber works to pass the bill through the House.”
Amanda Yanchury, a spokeswoman for Rep. Betty McCollum, a 4th District DFLer, said only that McCollum hasn’t been asked by Stauber to support the legislation. McCollum chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies and has broad influence over federal land issues.
Stauber wouldn’t say if he would reconsider his bill if the website works better next year, but did say he’s open to tweaking his legislation based on input as it moves through Congress. His measure, he said, was about making sure “our cooperators, our outfitters and our citizens are directly heard and that the U.S. Forest Service will work for the people and not themselves.”
“In my mind, this was about big government shoving something down the throats of small businesses in northeastern Minnesota without giving them any input,” Stauber said.
For her part, Nelson, the Ely outfitter, said when the lottery system was in place for all permits, people booked trips earlier, creating more certainty for her business. “Honestly, it was easy for us because we didn’t have to be prepared for a ‘go-live’ date and then scramble to get permits as fast as we could, hoping the internet worked,” Nelson said.
She said it would be a “huge weight off of our shoulders” if the motor permits, in particular, returned to the lottery system.