Each spring, a series of social media rants and articles appear, making assumptions about the complicated workings of Recreation.gov (Rec.gov) and expressing concerns about service fees, lotteries, and campsite availability. While there are valid criticisms of the relationship between the US government and Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), the Big 4 consulting firm that built and operates the platform, many of the most widely-shared pieces are misleading and lack nuance. Below, I aim to address how, why, and what can be done about it.
Firstly, to better understand the complexities around this eternally relevant topic and identify common misconceptions about the use of Rec.gov to manage public lands, 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.
Throughout these conversations, I explored the challenges that agencies face in managing public lands through permits, lotteries, and other means, and examined how these strategies impact accessibility and equity in outdoor recreation. While these tactics are useful for managing visitation, they can also be a source of frustration and confusion, fueling concerns about the transparency and effectiveness of Rec.gov.
If you recreate on public lands, this is a subject you should care about.
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. In 2006, Reserve America took over the contract, and for years their system was plagued by user experience issues and USFS was consistently frustrated by the pace of development and lack of agility in that relationship.
Reserve America was replaced by BAH in 2016 after a lengthy bid and review process (including congressional testimony) that emphasized migration to modern technologies and an agile approach to development. BAH submitted a significantly lower bid than other companies involved in the process.
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. In reality, 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. The contract had a guaranteed five-year duration, followed by one-year extensions awarded based on performance.
Critics question the choice of an incentive-based structure—on one hand, this type of contract can provide an incentive for the contractor to create an easy-to-use platform and provide ongoing maintenance and updates. USFS officials maintain that this choice effectively shifted risk onto BAH and resulted in a successful partnership at no cost to the US taxpayer. On the other hand, there are concerns about whether BAH is truly acting in the best interest of the government and the public, or simply focused on maximizing their own profits.
Some point to the fact that BAH is likely to make more than the estimated contract value as a strategy failure. 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. In 2016 alone, recreation visits increased by over 25 million; in 2021, 18 national parks broke all-time visitation records. 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. In hindsight, it certainly seems like an oversight to not have included a “max payout” amount for the duration of the contract.
BAH's increased earnings are due to that increased recreation, as well as new locations choosing to adopt Rec.gov as a technology solution. DeLappe 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. Individual, local agencies make their own decisions about pricing, types of availability (the distribution of book ahead vs walk-up campsites), and whether to implement lottery systems.
When I book a campsite, who gets paid?
Many people are understandably surprised when they find out that Rec.gov is “owned” or “run” by a consulting company (usually through a social media rant or intentionally inflammatory article). And there’s a reasonable expectation that 100% of transactions are going back to public lands.
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. On single night stays, lotteries, and less expensive BLM campsites, the service fee can feel disproportionately high.
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. 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, even if you save ~$8. The cost serves as a minor governor on the number of applications received and generates extra revenue for parks.
The agencies administering permits make decisions about pricing and whether to implement 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. 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.
For every dollar that BAH earns, many times more goes to various government agencies. In the first four years of the contract, over $1 billion in recreation revenue was generated for participating agencies and facilities, which USFS officials say was reached much faster than expected because of improved technologies, and with the additional benefit of increased efficiency for on-the-ground management and staffing.
Are service fees even legal?
A characterization of the BAH service fees as “junk fees” has led to a class action lawsuit filed in Virginia. A previous 2022 case found that the introduction of a $2 fee in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area violated the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), which authorizes five major agencies to collect and retain fees from visitors to federal recreation lands and waters. In the Red Rock case, courts found that the BLM did not comply with the public participation requirements for setting fees under FLREA. The new lawsuit cites the Red Rock case, seeks to recover millions of dollars in damages from the service fees charged by BAH, and also alleges that “Booz Allen deceptively runs Recration.gov to create the false impression that the junk fees are paid to the federal land management agencies.”
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. Additionally, the Red Rock case was primarily decided based on the lack of a public comment period, not the legality of fees in general. The deceptive practices piece will also be interesting to follow and will perhaps lead to a more clear breakdown of fee distribution will be required on Rec.gov.
"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."
Private corporations profiting off public lands is an American tradition
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—millions of people visit the Statue of Liberty (a national monument) each year and pay between $12-$24 to ride a ferry operated by Hornblower Cruises. In 2008, they were awarded a 10-year contract worth ~$350 million (with a 21% franchise fee). In total, “the Commercial Services Program of the National Park Service (NPS) administers more than 500 concession contracts with gross receipts totaling about $1 billion annually.”
Naturally, there are detractors to any type of private partnerships on public lands. Just because PPPs are common doesn’t mean that they are always 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 case to be made that BAH is making significantly more money than the value it is providing.
However, much like the expertise at the USFS is not in ferry operations or hospitality management, it’s also not a tech company. Some critics suggest that the USFS should have built and operated Rec.gov internally instead of engaging in a partnership with a private company. This is a surprising view, given that 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.”
BAH’s involvement is akin to that of a contracted engineering team. That would make the USFS and other agencies 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.
Employees see Rec.gov as imperfect but necessary
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). The original program started with 30 parks and 70 campgrounds. By the fiscal year of 2019, Rec.gov administered 3,680 locations and most recently (fiscal year 2022) counted 5,066 locations on the platform.
Moving processes online has significant benefits for many agencies. Have you ever put money or permits in one of those pipes stuck in the ground at a remote campsite? Someone has to drive around and pick up and then process all of those permits and cash. 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.
A former parks service employee described similar situation:
“I used to work in a permit office that handled everything in-house and we were constantly slammed. We only did about 10k a year but that meant a constant line out the door, long waits for visitors, and stressed out employees who didn’t have time to do anything else. Once the guy who maintained the database retired, moving it to Rec.gov was a necessity.”
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.”
Greater accessibility comes with trade-offs
There’s no doubt that 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.
However, 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. There’s a fine line to walk here, and one of the only ways to really prevent behavior like this is to make the consequences severe enough to cause people to change their behavior. Here are a few potential ways to tackle the issue:
Treat canceled reservations more like a hotel, where you lose your entire reservation instead of the first night and a no-show fee.
Raise the cost of campsites. Canceling a $30 campsite reservation doesn’t feel significant for many people, especially when compared to something like a $200 hotel room (that costs much more when booked for multiple nights).
Implement a penalty system tied to your Rec.gov account that affects your ability to make future reservations. If you no-show, perhaps you’re ineligible to make reservations for popular areas the next year.
Perhaps there’s also space for a Grand Canyon-style points system in which the odds of you getting a permit increase each year you don’t get one (although it’ll still be extremely hard).
Changing this behavior is also a challenge due to the difficulty of securing coveted campsites. Because there is so much competition, people often grab whatever dates they can, far in advance, without actually being too committed to those particular dates. This increases the likelihood that changed plans or other factors result in unused campsite reservations, which also prevent other people from visiting.
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 too—many of the same people who advocate for a more accessible outdoors also decry Rec.gov while others suggest “going back to the old way.” 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.
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)?
There’s a pervasive sense that Rec.gov and the increase of required permits and lotteries are unfairly restrictive to our right to access public lands. Naturally, BAH is an obvious scapegoat for many of these issues—it’s hard to be a fan of multi-billion dollar consulting companies, and nobody likes fees. Unfortunately, this is just one of the many complicated issues facing outdoor recreation in 2023. For better or worse, 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 or misguided, 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 occasionally annoying, are necessary measures to prevent overuse and protect these places from irreparable harm.
Many common criticisms of Rec.gov are less associated with BAH, and more 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. And if someone comes along who offers to fulfill all of the (significant) contractual requirements at a lower price point, BAH will be out of luck. Such is the way of a free market. Hopefully, the result will include a more equitable fee structure and a continually improved experience for everyone recreating on public lands.