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.
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? Booz-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 Edward Snowden.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
BAH running access to public lands (and their closely aligned evil twin of Reserve America for state lands) 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A quarterly system of business that looks at short-term gain over longer-term sustainability is the American corporation’s goal. And I doubt BAH cares about sustaining a resource for long-term use in future generations. Not when making almost $20 million a year as the first goal.
- 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…
- 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. And if you have the cultural, technical, or financial resources, you can even use bots to nab reservations. Do we want our public lands managed by plutocrats for other plutocrats’ benefit?
UPDATE DEC 2021:
And it looks like they have ads on their site now when you book a trip. Yes. folks, our tax dollar subsiding their profits further.
UPDATE APRIL 2022 –
A recent study confirms that gasp, these reservation sites make it so that –
“Scenic national campground sites in the United States that require highly competitive reservations see more white, high-income visitors than campsites that don’t require reservations.”
“You also need flexibility to plan your trip for six months from now. People with lower-income jobs often don’t have the ability to set vacations that far in advance.”
In 2022, I am present as a white, middle-class, and middle-aged male.
However, as I detailed in another article that also touched on this subject, though I did not grow up poor by any means, I did not have the type of background that engendered the luxury of what today’s backcountry experiences entail. Would a 12-yr old version of me today get exposed to the backcountry with today’s environment? Doubtful.
UPDATE FEB 2023 –
Recreation.gov, a national portal for accessing recreational activities on federal lands, is cluttered with unauthorized and possibly illegal “junk fees” that potentially generate hundreds of millions of dollars for a government contractor hired to operate the site, according to a lawsuit.
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.
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.