A version of this piece was published on OutdoorProject.org in July, 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 two 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.
The funny thing is, though, when you actually start paying attention, those details are damn expensive.
Let’s zoom in on some of them right now, starting with the little blue ‘i’ next to your total cost. Tap on that tiny detail (try repeatedly, while cursing, if you are a climber with callused sausages for fingers), and a friendly info box pops up to tell you where your money is going, or more importantly, where it is NOT going.
The reservation and application fees you pay, anywhere from $6-$15, to plan your adventure on Recreation.gov, do not go to the Forest Service, the National Park, the BLM, or any other Federal Land agency. You are, instead, paying directly into the pocket of a digitally-attractive assistant who provides you with that highly valued ‘intuitive’ booking experience.
Sometimes, a part of the amount you pay will end up with local land managers if fees and permit costs are rolled together (see above). 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 you think. 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.
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 Hotsprings 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, despite the fact that their name sounds like the title of your sophomore room mate’s first satirical one-act. ‘It’s like…what if Hamilton…went to college today, but he was like, this boring dude?’
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 wifi 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 few circle jerks, I mean, public hearings, 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 today.
Then things really started to take off for the shareholders. In the last three years since that contract was awarded, hundreds more locations now 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, 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 twenty 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 HAPE while summiting the highest peak in the lower 48?
Well, whatever the research gurus concluded, it is somewhere between $6 and $15 dollars.
$6 doesn’t sound so bad, but let’s take that detail to the aforementioned Mt. Whitney. According to Inyo National Forest website, over 16,000 people applied for permits to hike the 14,500(ish) 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 FS 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 1200 ft. coulier 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 of one 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, 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. Poop in the water, trampled poppies, terrified wildlife and permanent scars on Mother Natures. We believed that permits were the only answer. (A flawed assumption which 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. 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 which funds place-based outdoor education programs in public schools.
I don’t actually have an issue with Booz Allen Hamilton or it’s 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 which 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 which acknowledges that America no longer wants to be an indoor pet and embracing this new wave of adventurers, we are opting instead to narrow the gate, and are happily funding the gatekeeper’s golden parachute.