Who owns Recreation.gov?

Published

6/2/2023

Separating fact from fiction in the debates about Rec.gov, Booz Allen Hamilton, and lottery fees.

After seeing a slew of articles/rants about Rec.gov, I took a deep dive into how it actually works. I recently spoke with Rick DeLappe and Mark Salansky, program managers for Rec.gov, and Janelle Smith, a Forest Service public affairs specialist, among other current and past park service personnel. I’ve addressed most of the common questions below, but the great folks at Field Mag were kind enough to publish the whole deep dive.

What is Rec.gov?

Rec.gov is an online reservation system for public lands that started primarily as a way to share information across agencies, but it has since grown and expanded to include search, campsite booking, permits, and lotteries for public lands across the country. It is an interagency platform primarily administered by the US Forest Service (USFS) with 13 different agencies involved. Previously operated by Reserve America,  Booz Allen Hamilton (a Big 4 consulting firm) took over the 10 year contract in 2016 after a lengthy bid and review process.

Is Recreation.gov a private company?

No, Recreation.gov is not a private company. Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) is the consulting firm who is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the site, but they in no respect *own* it. BAH’s involvement is like that of a contracted engineering team. The USFS and other agencies act as the product managers, providing expertise around land and park management, and dictating what new features should be developed or improved by evaluating how the platform is being used by staff and recreation visitors.

Was BAH was paid $182 million to build the new site?

No. The contract was awarded with an incentive-based structure, meaning that BAH took on the risk (and potential reward) of building the platform and continuing to ensure a positive experience for both government agencies and park-goers. A frequently repeated claim is that the government paid $182 million for BAH to build Rec.gov. The US government paid nothing for BAH to develop and maintain the site, an internal management-focused experience, API, and staff a 24/7 support center. Instead, BAH takes fixed service fees from platform transactions. The oft-cited $182 million was a potential revenue estimate for the 10-year term of the contract using 2015 transaction numbers, fixed fees, and extrapolated growth over the following 10 years.

USFS officials maintain that this choice effectively shifted risk onto BAH and resulted in a successful partnership at no cost to the US taxpayer.

When I pay for a campsite or permit who gets paid?

There are two types of fees on Rec.gov. The recreation fee is the primary charge, typically around $30/night for campsites. Service fees are added by BAH and are $8/reservation for campsites. So, if you book 3 nights at a campsite, $90 goes to the US Treasury, and $8 goes to BAH. All payments on Rec.gov go directly to the US Treasury—BAH is then compensated each month based on the terms of their contract and the transaction volume.

On single night stays, lotteries, and less expensive BLM campsites, the service fees often feel disproportionately high (and this drives many of the strongest complaints).

Does BAH take 100% of lottery fees?

No. Despite widely shared assertions to the contrary, the USFS officials I spoke to clarified that only a portion of lottery fees are allocated to BAH. For example, in the Wave lottery ($9), $5 goes to Booz Allen and $4 goes to BLM. Obviously, still not ideal, but certainly better than 100%.

Some have issues with the entire concept of paid lotteries for recreation, but unfortunately, reducing the cost or making lottery entries free would likely have the effect of making them significantly harder to win (because there would be zero financial buy-in), even if you save ~$8. The cost serves as a minor governor on the number of applications received and generates extra revenue for parks.

Who decides the fee structure?

The agencies administering permits make all decisions about pricing and whether to implement permits and lotteries. BAH does not have the power to change fees, raise fees, or choose to charge new ones; they can only earn fixed amounts per transaction type that were stipulated in the original contract (in 2016). Unfortunately, this also means that any changes to the fee structure are unlikely to happen until a new contract is negotiated.

Is BAH "robbing" visitors with service fees?

BAH is likely to make more than the estimated contract value over the 10 years of their contract. This is primarily due to the rapid growth of recreation visits in recent years as well as changes in recreation patterns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These factors influenced the introduction of new permits, lotteries, and timed-entry passes in order to control crowds—transactions that often happen on Rec.gov. BAH's increased earnings are due to that increased recreation, as well as new locations choosing to adopt Rec.gov as a technology solution. In hindsight, it certainly seems like an oversight to not have included a “max payout” amount for the duration of the contract.

Rick DeLappe, a program manager for Rec.gov, describes the website as an “enterprise toolset for agencies and land managers to adopt if it serves their needs”—no agency is forced to use it, and neither Rec.gov nor BAH dictate requirements around how to implement it.

Are service fees legal?

A lawsuit has been filed in Virginia against the BAH service fees, which have been referred to as "junk fees." The lawsuit refers to a previous case in 2022 where a $2 fee implemented in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area was deemed a violation of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). This act allows five major agencies to collect and keep fees from visitors to federal recreation lands and waters. In the Red Rock case, the courts determined that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) did not adhere to the requirements for public participation when establishing fees under FLREA. The new lawsuit draws upon the Red Rock case and aims to recover millions of dollars in damages resulting from the service fees charged by BAH.

It will be interesting to watch how this case develops, given that the service fees were established as part of the 2016 contract to pay for operation of the website, and are likely not technically land-use fees and thus may not fall under the jurisdiction of the FLREA.

Should private corporations be profiting off public lands?

BAH and Rec.gov aren’t the only public/private partnerships (PPPs) on public lands. For decades, hospitality services in state and national parks across the country have been managed by companies like Aramark, Delaware North, and Xanterra. Every time someone stays at Yosemite Lodge or grabs lunch at Old Faithful, most of that money is going to a private hospitality partner, not the parks. For example, Aramark pays only a 11.75% franchise fee on gross receipts from hospitality services in Yosemite, meaning that 88.25% stays with the company. Hospitality isn’t the only example—the Statue of Liberty 10-year ferry contract is worth ~$350 million (with a 21% franchise fee).

Just because PPPs are common doesn’t mean that they are good, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the current payment structure for Rec.gov is an equitable distribution of funds based on the amount of work or effort put in by BAH. There’s a strong case to be made that BAH is making significantly more money than the value it is providing.

Why can't USFS run Rec.gov internally?

Much like the expertise at the USFS is not in ferry operations or hospitality management, it’s also not a tech company. The federal government has a long-standing reputation for outdated, hard to use, buggy, and fragile technology. As recently as 2020, the New Jersey government was desperately searching for developers familiar with COBOL—a 60-year-old programming language. And despite what some may think, Rec.gov is not a simple website. The platform involves integrations between an array of agencies and supports a wide variety of complicated booking options, scheduling parameters, search, and more. As Delappe notes, “Government programs tend to languish over time. We wanted a modern, agile approach and continuous improvement.”

Is it theoretically possible? Sure. But it would require a plethora of knowledge and expertise that the USFS simply doesn't have internally.

What are the benefits of Rec.gov?

While Rec.gov and BAH often receive criticism from consumers, the impact to operations in federal land management has been largely positive (even if opinions of BAH are less than stellar). In 2019, Rec.gov administered 3,680 locations and most recently (FY2022) counted 5,066 locations on the platform.

Moving processes online has significant benefits for many agencies. Advance reservations and scan-and-pay services significantly reduce the amount of cash that agency employees need to handle in the field and helps staff plan and anticipate visitation. Moving reservation management to Rec.gov is often an operational choice that allows parks staff to spend more time in the field and less time with back-office administrative tasks—a shift that is more important than ever given staffing shortages in recent years.

In Olympic National Park, officials estimated that the previous permit system took park staff approximately 15 minutes per permit to process—for 20,000+ permit applications a year. That’s 5,000 staff hours that are saved every year by moving the process to Rec.gov, and 5,000 hours that staff can focus on the things they’re good at, rather than doing manual data entry in an antiquated system. That’s just one national park, and only the 14th most-visited in 2022.

Glacier National Park recently had a public comment period for a proposed transition to Rec.gov, and explained part of their reasoning:

“Over the last few years, applications for advance wilderness camping permits have tripled. Previously, park staff conducted a lengthy manual lottery to issue advance reservation permits using Pay.gov. Transitioning to Recreation.gov for advance reservations would replace the labor-intensive lottery with a more efficient, user-directed online service.”

In this case, park officials noted that the transition would actually result in lower overall costs for advance reservation applicants, stating:

“These fees represent a slight change from the current fee structure but would result in lower costs for advance reservation applicants. While the $10.00 permit fee to Recreation.gov would be a new charge, a $30.00 advance reservation fee previously charged for all advance reservations via Pay.gov would no longer be in effect.”

Are there trade-offs to making the outdoors more accessible?

Absolutely. Rec.gov has made it easier than ever to find recreation areas, reserve campsites, apply for permits, and enter lotteries. The number of new accounts on Rec.gov has continued to grow at a torrid pace, with three million added since 2020 alone. This growth is a major factor in the constant unavailability of popular campsites, the sense of impossibility of winning permits, and drives recurring conversations around whether or not bot accounts are stealing campsites. As I’ve explained previously, there aren’t any bots snatching up reservations, there’s just a lot of people. Officials agree, and maintain that they have a range of systems in place to monitor and prevent this kind of activity and that there is no evidence of widespread, inauthentic reservations.

There are legitimate concerns around availability, cancellation practices, fees, and more. There is significant anecdotal evidence that no-shows are a widespread issue; many campers are frustrated that some campgrounds listed as fully booked only end up being partially full on any given day. While there are cancellation fees in place, the policies are clearly not a sufficient deterrent for most people.

The Rec.gov team is aware of the frustrations around cancellations and difficult-to-reserve campsites, and is exploring different approaches to remedy the situation, though they haven't committed to a specific approach just yet.

Different types of advance reservations are already being piloted in several major campgrounds. Both Lower Pines in Yosemite and Mount Rainier National Park have been testing alternative lottery systems, including a pre-lottery that narrows down the number of eligible participants who can book campsites and permits on the day they become available.

It's a challenging balance with regard to guest experience, efficiency, and accessibility. The discourse around Rec.gov is often confusing—many of the same people who advocate for a more accessible outdoors also decry Rec.gov and suggest going back to the “old ways.” Those “old ways” generally involved dozens of disconnected and terrible websites, hard to find information on when or how to get permits, and if you got that far, an opaque mail-in process or spending hours on the phone at the right time. Not exactly an accessible or equitable experience.

How do you make everyone happy?

What does accessibility even mean in the current recreation landscape? Does it mean that everyone should be able to afford to explore the outdoors (keeping fees and prices low, resulting in minimal cancellation consequences) or that everyone who wants to visit a specific place should be able to whenever they want (decreasing permit regulations and resulting in crowded places becoming even more crowded)? If there is this much interest, shouldn’t we build more camping and access infrastructure on public lands (never a popular idea)?

The conversation around Rec.gov is just one of the many complicated issues facing outdoor recreation in 2023. Every initiative by a major outdoor brand to get more people outside means more people on the trails, more crowds, more Rec.gov accounts, and increased environmental degradation. This doesn’t mean those campaigns are wrong, it just means that promoting outdoor recreation is complicated. There are already more people who want to recreate in our most treasured places than nature (or USFS staff) can support, and all of us are part of the problem. Outdoor recreation is by nature an extractive activity. Permits, reservations, and lotteries, while often annoying, are necessary measures to prevent overuse and protect these places from irreparable harm.

Many of the frequently repeated criticisms are related to the complicated, challenging decisions that agency officials have to make about managing public lands. The surge in recreational activities over the past five years led to new strategies to manage visitation, but these approaches often come with significant trade-offs. I’m not a BAH or government bureaucracy apologist. There’s plenty to criticize in this particular relationship, but there’s also a great deal of nuance, and it often feels as if critics are unaware of or unwilling to examine the many trade-offs and consequences of other potential solutions.

The BAH contract technically runs until 2028, although a new phase of requirements gathering for the next contract period will begin years before then. USFS officials acknowledge that there is room for improvement in the current system, and the research and exploration for the next contract will include a thorough evaluation of fee structure, the marketplace pricing model, and more.

TLDR;

  • Rec.gov is not “owned” by Booz Allen Hamilton. They are essentially the tech team that is responsible for the site (and related services).
  • The USFS paid nothing to build the site, it was built for free and the contract allows BAH to take fixed service fees per transaction type (fees were established in the contract in 2016 and can’t be changed).
  • BAH does not take 100% of lottery fees
  • Individual local agencies make the decisions about pricing, scheduling, and lottery requirements
  • All money transacted goes directly to the US Treasury and then BAH is paid each month based on their fixed fee structure.
  • There is an important conversation to be had about the fee structure, especially given that the rise in outdoor participation is leading to earnings greater than expected for BAH.
  • Outdoor recreation in 2023 is insanely complicated. It’s nearly impossible to balance access, crowds, fees, and environmental stewardship in a way that makes everyone happy.

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