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Lindsay DeFrates | 07.08.2019

You know what’s great about Recreation.gov? It’s just so dang pretty. It’s got those neat, friendly-looking calendars that let you see which campsites you can still reserve exactly 45 seconds after the permits became available and exactly 2 minutes before they’re all gone. You can view high-res photos of popular hiking trails or campgrounds and read cheerful summaries of how amazing they are. The reservation process is streamlined, and it takes your money in a very efficient manner. In fact, when it came to making America’s digital hub of outdoor experiences modern and user-friendly, they spared no expense on the details.

 


Behind the National Park Service's management is a maze of private contracts. Rini Sugianto.

The funny thing is, though, when you actually start paying attention, those details are damn expensive.

The reservation or application fees you pay to plan your adventure on Recreation.gov, separate from a permit fee which you may or may not pay as well, are anywhere from $6 to $15. None of these fees end up with the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the BLM, or any other federal land agency. You are, instead, paying directly into the pocket of a corporation that designed a digitally attractive assistant to provide you with that highly valued, intuitive booking experience.

If your chosen destination also requires a local permit fee, that amount will likely end up with local land managers. But unless you have already been paying attention to those damn details and peeking under the shiny veneer of a modern interface, the amount is much less than we all previously thought. In many cases, the local ranger district doesn’t see your dime at all unless you end up paying them separately for the cost of a permit.

Details, details.

 


An outline of fees for day use at Mount Whitney. Jonathan Stull.

So who is getting paid? To find out, you need only speak with your friendly neighborhood land manager, who will tell you that the money for, perhaps, a Conundrum Hot Springs permit, all goes to Rec.gov itself. And from there? A quick Internet search would identify a massive corporation with the illustrious, but less-than-mellifluous, name of Booz Allen Hamilton. This every-industry titan holds government contracts in everything from infrastructure to energy management and from defense contracts to cyber-security. They are very much a for-profit business, and right now, business is booming. Enticing outdoor enthusiasts with pleasant graphics and mysterious permit lottery algorithms is a relatively new side hustle for BAH. They’ve only been in charge of that aspect of American life since 2016.

As more public land managers and locals started panicking about overcrowding in the last decade, hundreds of new areas, hikes, and campgrounds were annexed under the protective wing of permitted access. The result is that the lands were now “protected,” and outdoor lovers began to spend more time staring at and refreshing the homepage of their favorite backcountry permit than they did actually on the trip they booked. The gunslinger version of fastest Wi-Fi in the West also began to play out more and more to snag those coveted spots within minutes of their release.

But the system was clunky and unappealing, booking was difficult, and everyone who loved being outside agreed that we desperately needed a prettier website. We needed more details and an intuitive platform to tell us where we were not allowed to go. In 2016, after a national RFP party and a congressional public hearing, Booz Allen Hamilton received the job of modernizing and consolidating the management platform. They also got a cool $182 million to get the job done. With that nice little bit of investment capital, courtesy of the taxpayers, Recreation.gov began to evolve into the more pleasing figure we know and refresh 100 times a day. Then things really started to take off for the shareholders. In the last 3 years since that contract was awarded, hundreds more locations were updated to require a reasonably priced permit to gain access.

Now, you might begin to wonder who decided what exactly constituted a reasonable price. Who set the fees? To hunt down this detail, you might need to dial up the customer service gurus at Rec.gov, sit on hold, get transferred several times, and sit on hold some more before learning from a nice lady whose name I won’t share that BAH actually sets the Recreation.gov fees for themselves. What a fascinating detail!

I’m sure there is some pretty serious research done into exactly what price the market can sustain. How much are those rafters going to shell out for a one-in-20 chance to get eaten alive by mosquitoes while occasionally getting splashed? How much will a backpacker pay to snag a chance to wander through a scorching hot desert with pretty rocks? What is it worth a person to maybe get high-altitude pulmonary edema while summiting the highest peak in the lower 48?

Well, whatever the research gurus concluded, it is somewhere between $6 and $15.

 


Mount Whitney's alpine beauty enticed more than 16,000 permit applicants in 2018. Rini Sugianto.

Six dollars doesn’t sound so bad, but let’s take that detail to the aforementioned Mount Whitney. According to Inyo National Forest, over 16,000 people applied for permits to hike the 14,500-foot peak this season alone. Each applicant paid Rec.gov a $6 application fee to be considered in the lottery.

The winners, who make up about 30% of applicants, would then pay a reasonable $15 permit fee to Inyo National Forest itself. That permit fee gets you a number of useful items like wag bags, maps, and the certainty that someone will probably come looking for your body if you accidentally glissade down a 1,200-foot couloir in your brand new Eddie Bauer hiking boots.

But either way, everyone paid $6, whether they won or not. Since we now know that money from application fees goes to Rec.gov and the shareholders of BAH, we can estimate that by hosting a platform and writing a useful algorithm, the gross income from that single location was over $100,000.

And that is just one single location.

Want to hike the Half Dome cables? Pay Rec.gov. Interested in running one of the whitewater stretches in the Four-River permit lottery? Your non-refundable fee of $6 is just one of about 30,000 others. Once you start doing the math and adding up the details, it becomes obvious that Americans are willing to shell out millions every year to get their dream-trip/bucket-list/Insta-famous experience.

At first, we were happy to pay the price. We were sure that quotas and access restrictions were “saving” those places from being loved to death—with poop in the water, trampled poppies, terrified wildlife, and permanent scars on Mother Nature. We believed that permits were the only answer, a flawed assumption that needs some serious investigation and a few alternate perspectives.

We also naively assumed that the extra money was, in fact, going to the land we love. A reasonable assumption seeing as we teach fourth graders that any website with a “dot gov” ending is inherently a reliable source. They don’t learn about outsourcing until they are paying for their economics degree.

Then the shy capitalist in me debated for a while whether maybe these reservation and application fees weren’t at least somewhat fair. Booz Allen Hamilton provides a product (i.e., the lovely website), and we pay them for the privilege of using it. But then I asked, what else could that money be doing if we were willing to settle for an older model online experience?

Just imagine for a moment a world in which outdoor lovers were a little bit less worried about what their online experience felt like. Imagine that we were just as happy to give the extra $50 we spend on Rec.gov fees each season to, say, funding another seasonal ranger at popular trailheads to enforce rules and educate. Or maybe just dump all those millions from Rec.gov’s pockets into a national grant that funds place-based outdoor education programs in public schools.

I don’t actually have an issue with Booz Allen Hamilton or its expensive lawyers. They are only doing what we asked them to. I am, however, calling out every dirtbag and weekend warrior, every camper and backcountry guide to acknowledge that we need to pay attention to the details and stop looking for the easy way out that happens to benefit us because we discovered the outdoors before “those guys.”

We should be actively searching for and funding ways to educate and instill a sense of stewardship in everyone who wants to get outside. But instead of searching for a long-term solution that acknowledges that America no longer wants to be an indoor pet and embraces this new wave of adventurers, we are opting instead to narrow the gate. And we are happily funding the gatekeeper’s golden parachute.

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