Daily DrakeDrake Magazine Spring 2023
Launch ramp on Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon

Launch ramp on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon

 

Questionable Collections

Where are our recreation.gov fees actually going?

By Tom Bie

Type “fly fishing” into the recreation.gov search window, and 260 results appear, allowing bookings for anything from a campsite on Oregon’s Umpqua River ($28) to the “Sunrise House” on Cape Cod ($6,600 for Memorial Weekend). There are at least two fees involved with every checkout: a “Recreation Use Fee” and a “Reservation Fee.”

Recreation fees vary based on location and demand, and this money finds its way back to our public-land agencies via a dedicated Treasury account. The reservation fees, however ($8 per campsite if made online), do not. That money goes to a 110-year-old D.C.-based consulting firm called Booz Allen Hamilton, which employs 30,000 people and specializes in military-intelligence contracting and cyber defense. In 2022, Booz Allen generated more than $8 billion in revenues. This company, not a government agency, runs recreation.gov.

Our national campsite-booking system has a rather complex history, beginning in the early ’90s when a couple Canadians launched the website “ParkNet” out of their Ontario garage. In 1997, “ReserveAmerica” developed a functional reservation system for the National Park Service, which led to it being acquired by InterActiveCorp (owners of Ticketmaster), which led to the Forest Service, in 2005, granting ReserveAmerica a $97M contract to take over booking all federal recreation sites.

By 2016, federal agencies went looking for a new contractor, and they found one in Booz Allen, which ultimately signed a five-year contract in 2018 worth an estimated $182 million. (Booz Allen wasn’t paid that amount; that was the estimated value. Which, turns out, was a fraction of the actual value.)

A dozen federal agencies now offer some 4,200 facilities and 113,000 campsites on recreation.gov. (In 2016, it was half that.) As if we needed more evidence of the growth in outdoor everything during COVID: The user accounts on recreation.gov grew from 14.3 million in 2019 to 16.4 million in 2020. Adding to the Taylor Swift-like homepage-reloading experience, Booz Allen—for all its cyber-security prowess—has apparently never learned how to keep bots off its site. This has helped grow the suspect second-hand campsite market for companies like Campnab, Campflare, and Campspot.

An $8 reservation fee may sound reasonable, but Booz Allen also collects for things like cancellations and date changes. But the real money is found in lotteries. Permits to float Idaho’s Salmon or Middle Fork of the Salmon are two of the most coveted prizes awarded in the annual Four Rivers Lottery. During the 62-day application window for 2023, 40,153 applications were received for 685 available launch dates on these two rivers. The non-refundable “Lottery Application Fee” was $6, earning Booz Allen a cool $240,918. From two rivers, that 98.3 percent of the applicants didn’t get a permit to float.

In a different scenario, such profits might be lauded. But fees alone from 113,000 campsites make a million bucks a night seem plausible during the summer. With not a dime of it going back to public lands. In January 2023, a group of seven outdoor enthusiasts sued Booz Allen in a class-action complaint over what the lawsuit claims are illegal “junk fees.” The company filed for a dismissal, claiming that they actually charge no fees, as that money goes to the government. (Technically, both of these statements are true: That money does first go to the feds. Then Booz Allen sends an invoice.)

Booz Allen’s contract is up for renewal this year, as is the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), the legislation requiring public participation in setting fees that public-land agencies can charge. This should result in a public-comment period. Junk fees are costly enough on every phone or cable bill. We don’t need them to come camping with us.

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Tom Bie is the founder, editor, and publisher of The Drake. He started the magazine in 1998 as an annual newsprint publication based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He then moved it to Steamboat, Colorado (1999), Boulder, Colorado (2001), and San Clemente, California (2004), as he took jobs as managing editor at Paddler, Senior Editor at Skiing, and Editor-in-Chief at Powder, respectively. Tom and The Drake are now both based in Denver, Colorado, where The Drake is finally all grows up(Swingers, 1996) to a quarterly magazine.

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