Thousands of anglers who desire special permits every year to fish from motorboats in the boundary waters will vie against each other in a new way when Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) officials discontinue a familiar lottery system for the permits next year.
The rule change by the U.S. Forest Service will put the scarce permits up for grabs on a first-come basis starting next January. Last year, 12,500 applications were made for 3,500 permits. The permits allow boats powered with 25-horsepower (or less) motors to enter two separate bays of Basswood Lake and a couple of neighboring lakes.
Some outfitters in the Ely area resent the change, saying it will hurt their businesses and disadvantage people who are not equipped with high-speed internet. On the annual “go live’’ date, prospective permit buyers will be poised at their personal electronic devices with credit cards in hand. Starting at 9 a.m. Central time they’ll try to make a reservation through www.recreation.gov.
“If we hit a button at the same time, I lose,’’ said BWCA outfitter Bob LaTourelle, who works northeast of Ely in an area with undependable internet service.
Under the old system, motor lottery applications could be made via computer without deadline pressure throughout a four-week period. Winners would be notified by mid-February. Prospective visitors could submit as many applications as desired. Moreover, qualified outfitters could make applications on behalf of confirmed clients — an option no longer available in the first-come, first-served system.
LaTourelle, owner of LaTourelle’s Moose Lake Outfitters, said the change robs Ely area outfitters of a service option that brings in customers. One possible implication is that the new system could scare off users of the BWCA who have relied on outfitters to secure their permits.
“We think there are going to be more problems created by doing it this way,’’ LaTourelle said. “Anyone who deals with it is very concerned.’’
Nick Ott of Packsack Canoe Trips & Log Cabins, also of Ely, said motorized fishing trips into Basswood Lake are popular with guests at his family-owned lodge on Fall Lake. His customers rent log cabins on the edge of the wilderness for a week and some spend a day or more on motorized fishing outings to Basswood’s Pipestone Bay. Most motor permits are for day use, but more than 1,000 permits a year go to anglers who camp at least one night.
“Could we lose customers?’’ Ott said. “We’re curious where it will go. … Some businesses will lose out on money.’’
Kristina Reichenbach, a spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest, said “a few businesses’’ would like to see the motor permit lottery continue. But she said the forest service was getting hit with service charges for unsuccessful lottery applications. In addition, the number of visitors served by the motor lottery is small in comparison to the BWCA’s overall traffic of more than 100,000 visitors a year.
“It’s not a real big deal,’’ Reichenbach said.
Before 2012, the Forest Service ran a lottery system to distribute permits to visitors of all kinds, at all entry points. Visitors applied for permits for a specific entry date and entry point and waited for confirmation. The change to a first-come, first-served system enabled prospective visitors to see what entry points and dates were available and make reservations in real time. The system applies to the BWCA’s “quota season’’ of May 1 through Sept. 30. In the offseason, visitors issue permits to themselves and locations aren’t restricted by quota.
When the change happened in 2012, the lottery system was retained only for a handful of entry points, including the core area for motor permits. In those places, demand for permits far outweighed supply.
“The Forest Service has determined that the lottery is no longer necessary,’’ the agency said recently in an e-mail to last year’s lottery participants. “Eliminating the lottery will create a reservation system that is less complicated, consistent, fair and will remove the need for a separate process.’’
BWCA camping fees this year remain unchanged at $16 per trip for adults, $8 for youth. But the nonrefundable reservation fee for all permits has gone from $6 to $10.
LaTourelle said one of the overarching concerns shared by outfitters and Forest Service officials alike is a mildly downward trend in usage of the 1.1 million-acre public wilderness.
According to the latest BWCA Permit and Visitor Use Trends report from the federal government, the number of adult visitors in the BWCA’s core group of regular-season overnight canoe campers declined 6 percent from 2009 through 2016, to 65,500 people. The report said youth visitors for overnight canoe camping in the BWCA dropped 8.3 percent from 2009 through 2016 to 18,800 people. In 2014, only 60,000 adults and 17,700 youths visited as overnight canoe campers during the regular season, the report said.