New BWCAW permit system fails on first day, reservations remain unavailable

Photo courtesy Superior National Forest

Yesterday marked the opening of the season for 2019 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness permits. A new system was implemented this year, with a new private contractor running the website — and within minutes of opening, it came to a halt.

Blaming technical difficulties, the Forest Service quickly shut off permits due to imbalanced web traffic.

“The Recreation.gov team, both agency and contractor staff, soon discovered a problem with how the national system servers were distributing the traffic to the web site, which resulted in the inability of many visitors to make reservations,” the Forest Service said.

A few people had managed to make a reservation already, but everything will be expunged and reservations must be made again once the system is working. No date has been set for when reservations will be possible again, but the Forest Service promised to give at least 48 hours notice before opening it up.

‘Breach of trust’

Wilderness outfitters, resorts, and other businesses that reserve many permits for customers were frustrated.

“This was a massive breach of public trust with a government agency that had been entrusted to create a system to fairly manage the wilderness,” Willy Vosburgh of Vosburgh’s Custom Cabin Rentals resort on Fall Lake, told MPR News.

Superior National Forest employees had been working with the contractor for months, including while not being paid as furloughed federal employees during the recent government shutdown. The changes were primarily driven by online security concerns.

The agency expressed dismay when the system failed.

“Again, the Forest has done everything asked of us the last 14 months,” said Ann Schwaller, Natural Resources Forest Wilderness Program Manager, Superior National Forest. “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.”

The new website came not just with technical also came with a permit policy change. All permits are available on a first-come, first-serve basis now. Previously, about 42,000 permits each year were reserved through a lottery system for high-demand entry points, the Duluth News Tribune reported.

Some businesses and other stakeholders had previously objected to the policy change, particularly because it made valuable motor permits on lakes like Basswood even more difficult to get. Critics predicted a rush of web traffic as soon as reservations opened, which could cause problems like those experienced yesterday.

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