The scourge of Rec DOT gov

As the spring season slowly turns into summer, many people plan their upcoming trips.  They dream of hiking trails in national parks, paddling through our public lands on the rivers, planning out a campsite for a family weekend in the national forest, or even booking some spots on a shuttle bus.

And the site they’ll use to book these sites? More than likely, they’ll use Rec.gov, where a person can  “reserve experiences at over 3,600 facilities and 103,000 individual sites across the country” and hard to avoid for the majority of our public lands in 2021 that requires reservations, permits, or booking resources.

“Explore your America”…but pay our extra fees first!

Despite the .GOV  designation of the website, rec.gov, is a government domain but run by a private entity contracted by the federal government.  The company controlling access to much of our public lands? Booze-Allen-Hamilton (BAH).  A $7 billion (yes, with a “B”) a year company based in D.C. and famously called the “World’s most profitable spy organization by Bloomberg.  You may know one of their more famous employees by the name of Eric Snowden. 

From Capital Beltway

No doubt the BAH connection gets obscured on the rec.gov website for a reason. Many otherwise well-read people active outdoors aren’t aware that the site where they book their weekends and dream vacations funnel funds to a corporation to the tune of a $184 million contract and $1.5 million to implement. All these facts contrary to whatever corporate spin-doctoring is on the BAH site about a private-corporate partnership at no cost to the taxpayers.

In addition to many surcharges for booking shuttles, entrance to the parks, campground reservations, backcountry permits, etc., online, many land agencies are outright limiting or even stopping walk-in or day of passes. Do you want to play? You need to pay BAH their cut first.    BAH gets to set their fees with no oversite and continues to get their fingers in more of the public land pie.

Are you signing up for the lottery to Half-dome, rafting down a river, or backpacking in a choice area?  But still don’t get in? You lose your money regardless if you win or not. And there’s absolutely no incentive to limit the lotteries. There’s an incentive to have MORE lotteries.

Going with the theme of dealing in a cut to an entity with little oversight, BAH’s motto may as well be “F*** you. Pay me.”

Real-life mobster Raymond Patriarca. I suspect he had better food than the BAH suits, however.

The money does not maintain public lands, and I doubt it goes to the people working the customer service lines.

It goes into the corporate circle of life for any high-end DC firm –

  • Underfund govt agencies with lobbyists talking to bought and sold politicians.
  • Convince the public that the private market will work more efficiently than the now crippled agency.
  • Use the lobbyists to convince the bought and paid for politicians to privatize aspects of a government agency.
  • Profit. A lot.

The Internal Revenue Service is an infamous example of this well-used game plan.

I should also add that many places, such as Canyonlands National Park, had an efficient and effective online system for permits. Joan and I booked many trips using the government portal with no additional fees.  Due to cutbacks, the park service does not have the staff to manage that portal and got forced to switch to the BAH portal instead.  A similar story this year for the popular Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park, too.

There’s a persistent neoliberal (free market capitalists) myth the free-market and private initiative is always more efficient than government agencies.

Nonsense.

I’ve worked in corporations most of my adult life. They are not more efficient except when it comes to maximizing profits for shareholders and high-level executives and squeezing employees out of their free time for a salary with less purchasing power with each passing year.

And is it free-market capitalism when the rules are rigged for them and agencies crippled? Or more like the mafia dons I mentioned above but with an army of lawyers and lobbyists rather than Vinny and Rocco with a Molotov cocktail and a baseball bat?

NASA, at its peak, when politically expedient, took the lead in engineering our space program in true public-private partnership. Even today, with less funding, they manage to inspire wonder and delight among millions of people beyond internet access for the affluent.  And despite the mythology of the internet creation, where you read these articles is primarily because of government initiative and infrastructure.

On a more prosaic level, despite the “best” efforts of recent administrations, the USPS works well (for now).  I love their electronic signature service, the “click and ship” portal, informed delivery, and other aspects of the website that work efficiently with an easy-to-use design.

A real free market with consumer choices gave me a reliable truck, provides my paycheck and the efficiency of private businesses I know, among others.

I don’t want a private entity to manage our lands in many ways, especially when they manage it through political assignations and corruption and not free-market forces.

To paraphrase a popular bon mot, while I don’t want Uncle Sam running McDonald’s, I certainly don’t want McDonald’s running Rocky Mountain National Park.

From Wikimedia

BAH running access to public lands  (and their closely aligned evil twin of Reserve America) is awful for many reasons in addition to what I wrote above:

  • The $6 fees for a permit, as one example, is yet another example of a “hidden tax.” 

As a society, we’ve decided that rather than fund an agency, we’d rather pay a $6 fee to a private organization, which ends up at nearly $20 million a year for a decade to a multi-billion dollar firm.  Imagine what $20 million a year can do for programs, infrastructure, and salaries for our public lands? And multiply that by other private entities getting subsidized by the taxpayer?

The affluent continue to pay a smaller percentage of their income to access our public lands in a direct fee rather than spreading the burden around.  Other hidden taxes mean fewer rangers in our public lands, so the affluent (again) don’t mind paying for a private guide in lieu of a ranger talk as one example. The less affluent don’t have access to these resources that more affluent people can access. As I said before, I am not against Uber or Lyft; but I don’t think it should be the only choice either.

Paying an additional fee to access something you paid for sounds like a familiar business model.

  • And, of course, it is the nose of the camel under the tent when it comes to privatization. A friend of mine who writes guidebooks and very active with a well-known trail organization noted that public funds and volunteer hours built the trail and infrastructure in some places along the route, yet a private firm gets to profit from it? The next step, of course, is outright running of the entire area beyond the campground, entrance fees/permits, etc.

From Retirement Learning Center

  • Little oversight or education when giving the permit.  When you go to a place such as Cedar Mesa, the ranger gave a talk about LNT practices, not taking archeological artifacts and etiquette such as not leaning against structure walls or touching the rock images. In rafting areas, a person would make sure the potential person knew boat safety, had the correct equipment, etc. Now? Little oversight.  Site stewards work more volunteer hours to perform instruction completed in the past, and SAR personnel put in more hours to rescue people. Someone has to pay for the equipment, educations, maintenance, and training for volunteers. And it is not BAH.

  • From a selfish standpoint, this type of system discourages spontaneous trips. When I did my road trip three years ago, I already noticed the trend of mandating an RSVP for any activity. I am not against any RSVPs as I understand the concept of resource protection, but with a greed-based system with profit and not sustainability as its goal, there are fewer incentives to set aside spots for walk-ups. A six-dollar surcharge adds up to thousands of visitors. And with BAH getting into the RSVP for entrance fees for many parks, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars most certainly add up.  And that leads to…

Scrooge McDuck from Disney.

  • And furthering the trend of the outdoors becoming the playground of the 10%. You need a credit card and laptop (or mobile device) to go to parks to reserve time to go backpacking, camping, or even entering the park and many federal lands. And you need a schedule that allows you to reserve time well in advance for outdoor activities. And for the software engineer in Denver, the lawyer in SLC, or the marketing exec in Boston, who works a typical (if overworked)  schedule, what’s booking up several weekends at once to ensure a choice of weekends over the summer?  And at 8 AM? If you pay nearly $150 for four weekends and only go on one of the weekends, small price to pay. Right?  For the sheet metal worker or the retail clerk working many weekends, not so much an option.  Do we want our public lands managed by plutocrats for other plutocrats’ benefit?

Published in 2001, the book holds up well.

….

A cynic, or perhaps pragmatist, might say just go to where BAH or similar does not have its tentacles. But do we want to cede  “over 3,600 facilities and 103,000 individual sites across the country” to a blatant cash grab entity?  The ideal solution would be to fund our organizations and not gut them. To let the public entities manage our public lands and not a multi-billion dollar company with dubious loyalties to the country’s interest.   

Many rail against perceived gatekeeping in the outdoors. But many willingly allow economic gatekeeping because it is convenient.

Perhaps the pendulum will swing. When we don’t gut our agencies to make them look incompetent and where vulture capitalists can profit off the American taxpayer subsidizing corporations’ profits.

I just know what BAH and their ilk do to our public lands, and the experience on the public lands becomes worrisome to me.  And the overall trend is not a good one.

But things could change. They always do.

What to do? Vote, write your congress critters, and don’t settle something because you don’t think it can’t get better.

More reading? A bit dry at times, but Uncertain Path: A search for the future of national parks by William C. Tweed makes an overall interesting read.  It is a book I’ve discussed previously.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
31 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lyle Gordon
6 months ago

I was so dismayed to learn that Booz Allen Hamilton runs Rec.gov for profit. Instead of paying a company to develop the site we gave them the contract and let them profit from levying fees on the users of the outdoors! The site is also extremely annoying to use in many cases.

Scott
Scott
6 months ago

Well Doc……
At times likes these, I have to ask myself; what would Hayduke do?

Sam
Sam
6 months ago

Very interesting info. I’m concerned about funding for public lands…its a thing you tend to assume will just keep working somehow (like the post office) until suddenly one day it doesn’t! I speak as a midwesterner who isn’t swimming in these issues routinely.

Steve
Steve
6 months ago

Paul, you should try to fish this piece to other publications. I feel certain it would generate some push back from the community of outdoor enthusiasts. Not to disparage PMags.com, but this definitely merits broader exposure. Outsideonline?

Todd Anderson
Todd Anderson
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Not for you but to maybe make a difference by influencing others…

Jeff McWilliams
Jeff McWilliams
6 months ago

I agree with a lot of what you said. This sounds like another case where the government poured a TON of money into a private corporation to build a website and continues to allow that contractor to take a cut rather than channeling those funds back into maintenance of public lands. However, I don’t think the notion that private industry is always more efficient than government institutions is a neoliberal one. I think it’s a Republican/conservative one. The previous presidential administration was a Republican one that strongly believed in dismantling government institutions and wiping government regulations off the books in… Read more »

Steve
Steve
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

People confuse “neo-liberal” with “liberal” all the time. I’ve encountered folks thinking it means the “new liberals”, or the “contemporary leftists.” Naturally, any preconceived idea they may have about the word liberal also gets thrown in there. Ironically, most folks are likely to think you’re implying socialism. I’ve stopped using it, usually in favor of free-market capitalism or what ever specific idea I’m trying to get at, given the context. Having someone hear Antifa when you’re saying Ronald Regan is not good for conversation.

Good girl
Good girl
6 months ago

You need to direct your anger at the government agencies telling BAH what to do.

Good girl
Good girl
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Controlled? Of course. Protecting the aliens…

Ellen
Ellen
6 months ago

Mags, much of what you say here rings true with my experience as a long-time federal employee and resident of the greater DC area. Thank you for the link to the Policy Sciences article in JSTOR, which I plan to track down in full text. I have worked in several government agencies where portions of our workforce were contracted out and have seen the results of this. The government may or may not save taxpayer dollars by contracting out work, but in my opinion the overall results are really poor, from many angles.

PaulW
PaulW
6 months ago

This may be one of the most important posts you’ve done. It certainly deserves a wider audience as I don’t think most people have a clue what’s happening to our public lands. I’ll certainly be spreading the word.

PaulW
PaulW
6 months ago

I just saw your response to Steve about “publish hustle”, but I think you should reconsider. At the very least, some western publications like High Country News or Canyon Country Zephyr would be worth pursuing.

Evan
Evan
6 months ago

Excellent article! The corporatization of the US continues to degrade the environment and the quality of life for the average person, while massively enriching the oligarchs. It also degrades democracy itself, always in short supply in our oligarchy. The only sure way to stop or reverse this is to use hand counted paper ballots in all our elections, like real democracies use (most of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc…), while also instituting public funding of elections. See Harvey Wasserman on “strip and flip” elections.

Jason Jackson
Jason Jackson
6 months ago

Thanks for the article. I learned a lot… and none of it good.

Todd Anderson
Todd Anderson
6 months ago

Good post Paul. I’m concerned also. I would be fine with a clunkier site to have government management of public lands. I suspect it is more complex than that but that is one example of a trade off I would happily make. Your example of people reserving multiple weekends and not using them may be true. I went to a state park here in Texas in Jan. I made my reservation with Reserve America and it was slim pickings I got one of only two sites remaining. I made them late (within a week I think). So I figured they… Read more »

One Man's Odyssey
5 months ago

It’s an interesting problem. The “convenience fee” system is always funny and when the money spent for the “convenience” doesn’t go back to the parks, it begs the question of who it is actually conveniencing. The more difficult and larger issue bubbling underneath is what to do about overcrowding at parks and recreation areas. The private corporation managing the access in some ways solves the problems by increasing the fees, thus allowing supply and demand to work its magic (supply limits trigger price increases which decrease demand), but as you point out this triggers issues of accessibility with what are… Read more »

Casey B
Casey B
4 months ago
Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
4 months ago

Fantastic read. Another indirectly related facet that decreases broad public access is the growing use of bots. If a reservation is highly desirable, you can bet there are a good number of bots waiting to snag them up the moment they become available.

I’ve run up against this myself, when trying to make reservations the moment a new date opens up. In many instances the inherent latency of a human just can’t compete with the hordes of fine tuned bots, regardless of whatever captchas are in the way.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Not just rumors, it’s definitely a thing. Plenty of hits on google for “recreation.gov bot” and not just random github scripts either. There’s a couple fully developed SaaS businesses where one can pay to get that competitive edge.

The market will do as it does to leverage technology. To the benefit of that software developer in Denver who sets up his own scrapping bot. Or the SLC lawyer who pays for the bot service.

Ashley
Ashley
4 months ago

I had no idea….bummer city! I understand the not wanting to hustle the idea, but it’s a darn good one! I think It absolutely merits some more exposure. Or maybe we can all start the conversation around campfires and when co-workers are booking their outings… What an excellent community I’ve stumbled upon tonight at work. Thanks for the wealth of information, articles and suggestions Pmags & Co!