OUTDOORS: BWCA permit process will be overhauled
DULUTH -- The U.S. Forest Service plans to eliminate the lottery system it has used for many years to issue permits to some Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness campers.
Instead, canoe campers using the popular wilderness area will apply online or by telephone for permits on a first-come, first-served basis, said Kris Reichenbach, public information officer for Superior National Forest.
"The lottery was established years ago when we were using different technology," Reichenbach said. "At that time, we thought it was the fairest way to make those permits available."
Many campers now are accustomed to making reservations online, she said. They can find out immediately whether they received a desired permit, and they can reapply immediately if necessary, Reichenbach said.
But some canoe outfitters think the new system may create a chaotic situation with perhaps thousands of users trying to reserve permits the first day they are available. That's one of the concerns of Marcy Gotchnik, co-owner of Wilderness Outfitters in Ely, Minn.
The lottery system, which traditionally was open for more than a month before the lottery was held in January, gave outfitters time to put all of their parties' permit requests into the system at a relaxed pace, she said.
All overnight visitors to the BWCAW must have a permit, and from May through September each entry point has a quota allowing only so many parties to enter each day. A few of those entry points are especially popular, and on some days, demand is greater than the quota. That's where the lottery was effective in giving everyone an equal chance at those permits.
Campers put their permit requests into a lottery starting in early December for trips the following summer. The lottery was conducted in mid-January, and campers would know whether they were able to get the entry point and entry date they wanted.
After that and for the rest of the summer, campers would apply for permits on a first-come, first-served basis. Campers could do that online, by phone or in person at a Forest Service office or at the office of a "cooperator" such as an outfitter.
Bob LaTourell of LaTourell's Resort and Outfitters on Moose Lake near Ely said ending the lottery will hurt his business.
"It does prevent us from providing a service to our customers in making the application (for a permit)," LaTourell said. "It diminishes our ability to do that for the customer, and when you diminish services to folks, you start losing folks. So, we're not happy about that."
He also questioned what he said was a tight timeline for offering comments to the Forest Service.
"Maybe we should step back and actually give it the time it warrants to look at it," he said.
About 250,000 visitors use the BWCAW each year. Of those, about 150,000 are overnight visitors, Reichenbach said.
Other changes in permit issuing may also be made, she said. Ending the lottery is the only firm decision that has been made so far.
All BWCAW overnight permits are handled through the website www.recreation.gov. The Forest Service hasn't yet set a date on which campers can begin using the website or a toll-free number to obtain 2012 permits, Reichenbach said.
"We're still figuring out some of the details," she said.
A group called Conservationists with Common Sense, based in Virginia, has written a letter to the Forest Service with concerns about eliminating the lottery.
"CWCS thinks with the rushed nature of this decision-making process, it might be best to put this idea aside for this season and sit down with all of the stakeholders to come up with some ideas to satisfy everyone involved for the 2013 season," wrote Nancy McReady, CWCS president.
This article is by the Duluth News Tribune of Duluth, Minn. The Duluth News Tribune and the Herald are both Forum Communications Co. newspapers.