Thanks to the Hotshot Wakeup Person for this podcast and the person who contacted him with this piece posted at ZeroHedge… many of us would not be reading financial media outlets. It traces back to this Substack piece by a fellow named Matt Stoler. Matt, not being one of our community, talks about parks a lot, but it definitely includes the Forest Service and BLM (including seasonally relevant Christmas tree permits on the Arapaho-Roosevelt).
Stoller begins with a discussion of historical political philosophy/economics with an aside to Tammany Hall which Anonymous and others might enjoy.
It would be interesting to have more history on Recreation.gov from those involved. I remember it was part of the same E-gov initiative that produced PALS- as we worked on it, the idea was “how can we make government run better and serve its citizens better by automating processes.” We assumed at the time that the government would be paying for egov. Also it would be interesting to hear the other side of the story. I recently renewed my passport using a new online service through the State Department. Perhaps they should use the same financial model for passports. What could go wrong?
Like many, I entered the lottery for that BLM area and didn’t realize the bucks were actually going to a contractor.
You can do a lot at Recreation.gov. You can sign up for a pass to cut down a Christmas tree on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, get permits to fly-fishing, rifle hunting or target practice at thousands of sites, or even secure a tour at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There are dozens of lotteries to enter for different parks and lands that are hard to access. And all of them come with service fees attached, fees that go directly to Booz Allen, which built Recreation.gov. The deeper you go, the more interesting the gatekeeping. As one angry writer found out after waiting on hold and being transferred multiple times, the answer is that Booz Allen “actually sets the Recreation.gov fees for themselves.”
Following the U.S. Digital Service’s playbook is what led the government to bid out and allow the creation of Recreation.gov, with its weird and corrupt fee structure. In 2017, Booz Allen got a 10-year $182 million contract to consolidate all booking for public lands and waters, with 13 separate agencies participating, from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to the National Park Service to the Smithsonian Institution to the Tennessee Valley Authority to the US Forest Service.
The funding structure of the site is exactly what George Washington Plunkitt would design. Though there’s a ten year contract with significant financial outlays, Booz Allen says the project was built “at no cost to the federal government.”In the contractor’s words, “the unique contractual agreement is a transaction-based fee model that lets the government and Booz Allen share in risk, reward, results, and impact.” In other words, Booz Allen gets to keep the fees charged to users who want access to national parks. Part of the deal was that Booz Allen would get the right to negotiate fees to third party sites that want access to data on Federal lands.
It’s a bit hard to tell how much Booz Allen was paid to set up the site. Documents suggest the firm received a lot of money to do so, but it’s also possible that total amount was the anticipated financial return. I wrote to Recreation.gov team leader Julie McPherson at Booz Allen to find out what they were paid to build the site, and I haven’t heard back. Regardless, there’s a lot of money involved. For instance, as one camper noted, in just one lottery to hike Mount Whitney, more than 16,000 people applied, and only a third got in. Yet everyone paid the $6 registration fee, which means the gross income for that single location is over $100,000. There’s nothing criminal about this scheme, but it is a form of Honest Graft, or of handing a Ticketmaster-like firm control of our national park
In 2020, an avid hiker named Thomas Kotab sued the Bureau of Land Management over the $2 “processing fee it charges to access the mandatory online reservation system to visit the Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area.” He claimed, among other things, that the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act mandated that this fee was unlawful, because it had not gone through the notice-and-comment period required by the act. Kotab, an electrical engineer by training, is one of those ass-kickers in America, who just goes after a grift because, well, it’s just wrong.
A few years later, a judge named Jennifer A. Dorsey, appointed by Obama in 2013, agreed with him. She looked at the statute and found that Congress authorized the charging of recreation fees for the purpose of taking care and using Federal lands, not administrative fees that compensated third parties. As such, Booz Allen’s ability to set its own prices was inconsistent with the law mandating the public’s right to comment on what we are charged for using our own land.
The BLM sought to appeal, but then dropped it in July. Rather than a bitter procedural argument about classifying fees, the government and Booz Allen have decided they’ll just go through the annoying process of having the public comment on Booz Allen’s compensation, and then ignore us using their phony advisory council process. Here, for instance, is the Mojave-Southern Great Basin Resource Advisory Council Meeting in August simply proposing to substitute new standard amenity fees “equal to the associated Recreation.gov reservation service fee.”
One notable part of this saga is that technically, the BLM and Booz Allen owe refunds to everyone who went through Red Rock Canyon’s timed entry system from 2020-2022, but they’ll probably ignore that and steal the money. That verges into actual graft from the ‘honest’ type, but I suspect Plunkitt did that as well from time to time.
Stoller also recommends some fixes.
And yet, it’s not over. The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act authorization runs out in October of 2023, which means that Congress has to renew it. Hopefully, an interested member of Congress who loves Federal lands could actually tighten the definitions here, and find a way to stop Booz Allen and these 13 government agencies from engaging in this minor theft via junk fees. It wouldn’t be hard, and it would be fun to force a bunch of government agencies to actually do their job and either take over the site themselves or pay Booz Allen a fee for its service. (Another path would be Joe Biden, through his anti-junk fee initiative, simply asserting through the White House Competition Council to the 13 different agencies that they end Booz Allen’s practice of charging these kinds of fees.)
16 thoughts on “Why Is Booz Allen Renting Us Back Our Own National Parks? (and BLM and Forest Service, 13 Agencies Total): Matt Stoller”
Does the BLM or any Interior Department or the USDA-USFS pay the mandated 25% of the GROSS revenue from sale, lease, rent, forgiveness of monies owed, and whatever else, to the county in which the revenue was generated? In a word, to the county where the pass is used, not sold, leased, etc. You pass to hike through three counties, does each county get a third of the 25% of that permit price, BEFORE any, ANY, take a cut? Their vigorish. The grift and graft that remains AFTER the 25% is paid?
Thanks for sharing this. I will listen to podcast. I am appalled that this tech giant Booz Allen is running rec.gov and collecting all the revenue. Not surprising though. We just backpacked Aravaipa Canyon wilderness in Arizona (BLM & The Nature conservancy) & paid rec.gov $36 for privilege of hiking/camping 2 nights in area with no trails or facilities. We find rec.gov klunky, difficult & often expensive. If the article is true, it’s a crime that none of the revenue goes to management or facility maintenance on public lands. Sounds like typical privatization mode so favored by conservatives that fund business and rip off government and the public.
I recently paid an $8 processing fee (!) for a reservation at an Oregon state park via Reserve America. $8 for a brief electronic transaction. Outrageous. Maybe the state and feds ought to sell permits via Amazon.
Hey Steve I don’t know if replacing one greedy private company with another would help!
ResNexus is an alternative with no online transaction fees.
Reserve America works with state/local/private recreation providers. For federal lands there is no alternative to Recreation dot gov. Any federal rec site that takes or requires reservations at all is required to use Recreation dot gov.
Hmm. This may be one of those things that flourish under both kinds of Admins… see what Stoller says
“The entry point for Booz Allen can be traced back to the Obama administration, and a giant failed IT project. In 2010, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, pledging that by 2014, the government would have a website up in which uninsured Americans could buy health insurance with various subsidies. In perhaps one of the most embarrassing moments of the Obama administration, Healthcare.gov failed to launch the day the new health law came into force, and millions couldn’t sign up to take advantage of it.
It’s hard to overstate the shame of that moment. The government had spent $400 million over four years – more time than it took the U.S. to enter and win World War II – and yet, the dozens of contractors couldn’t set up a website to take sign-ups. The whole thing was an embarrassing disaster, a festival of incompetence and greed. (Despite the failure, the main IT contractor’s CEO became a billionaire. Honest graft indeed.)
President Obama hired Google’s Mike Dickerson to come in and fix the Healthcare.gov website, which Dickerson and his team did. This wasn’t some miracle, it’s not like websites were new technology. The government itself created the internet and most of the underpinnings of digital technology, and it had many functional and important systems. But the Google name at that point was magic, and so the U.S. Digital Service, designed to help the government use technology, was born. After Dickerson, the new head was Google’s Matt Cutts, and then health care monopolist Optum’s Mina Hsiang. The U.S. Digital Service, far from being particularly competent, is a branding exercise. It is full of people from Amazon and Google, and tends to push the government to outsource its technology to third party contractors.
Following the U.S. Digital Service’s playbook is what led the government to bid out and allow the creation of Recreation.gov, with its weird and corrupt fee structure. In 2017, Booz Allen got a 10-year $182 million contract to consolidate all booking for public lands and waters, with 13 separate agencies participating, from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to the National Park Service to the Smithsonian Institution to the Tennessee Valley Authority to the US Forest Service.”
Let me add, I think outsourcing IT can and has been successful. Our own E-NEPA contractors were great. But like the State Department, it’s a contract to do what the agency and admin wants, not a ticket to issue money at the citizens’ expense. Perhaps we can encourage the new Congress to take a look at this.
Sharon–good point and totally agreed. Recreation seems to be an issue that has a lot of bipartisan support in a very divided Congress. Sen Mike Simpson (R-Idaho)’s Great American Recreation Act of 2020 sailed through and has greatly increased natural resource agency recreation funding for 5 years and I noticed in recent Backpacker edition that a proposed Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) would hugely boost state wildlife budgets, also has broad bipartisan support. Might be one thing Congress could take a peaceable and productive look at!
This goes back WAY before Obama – think 1999-ish. The original Reserve America (originally called Recreation One-Stop) site had the federal public lands reservation system along with state and private recreation areas all on one site. It was run by Ticketmaster. At some point the contract was switched to The Action Network, which was interesting in that their customer service office was located in Canada which earned them some grief. Booz Allen got the contract in 2017 but it was to upgrade and “modernize” an existing site, not build one from scratch. I’m not sure when Reserve America split off to only do reservations on state/private vs Recreation.gov which is federal only but that happened along the way, not sure why.
This is far from limited to backcountry areas or permit systems. At developed campgrounds that take reservations (which is nearly all of them – certainly all of them run by concessionaires which is at least 80% of FS campgrounds) those reservations must be obtained through rec.gov as well.
The “new thing” that’s spreading in FS campgrounds is a “reservation-only” model. Even if you show up at the campground and there is an empty site that’s not reserved, you can’t occupy it until you pay for a reservation – and the camping fee – first through rec.gov. No more first-com first-served, no more cash payment. See the Mendenhall Lake CG on the Tongass. They use the excuse that FS staff doesn’t have to handle any filthy lucre – at a campground surrounded by the suburbs of the state capital, Juneau, home of numerous banks.
The slippery slope that started with Fee Demo has just about hit rock bottom.
Thanks, Kitty for the additional history! It sounds like it’s definitely easier for the FS, but is it a better customer experience? I think not.
PS I tried the link and looks like you have to have a paid subscription to listen? Am I correct or doing something wrong? Thanks!
I think you may have to have a subscription to the Substack to listen. I think his podcasts on Fridays are open to all but the ones earlier in the week only open to subscribers. Perhaps he will talk about it more in his podcast tomorrow.
In the meantime, I found links to these article that cover same topics for free!
Hey, this is interesting. My issue is parallel but a little different. I am exasperated with the incompetence of the NPS management of visitors at many of the smaller parks such as Assateague NP here in Maryland. They have two gates. One that is for pass holders and the other for fee visitors. But since 2021 but the NPS staff have insisted that they check ids of pass holders and claim that this is required of them by law. Thus they have shut down the second gate. The result of this and for other reasons is that cars stack up for about a mile during most days with visitors waiting hours to get in and exhaust spewing in the park. I contacted the Park and was blown off by their PR person. I contacted my Congressman who was also blown off by the NPS. Do not get me wrong. I love the Parks and the employees have a difficult job but I think the management reeks of not having any logistical expertise. These articles about Booz- Allen make me suspect that by farming out logistical expertise, the NPS is suffering by not having any internal expertise. Any suggestions for me to continue pursuing my concerns? Thanks
Checking ID is not a requirement of federal law, but it is agency policy. A lot of places don’t do it, but if they do, it’s policy, not law. The Interagency Standard Operating Procedures handbook says:
“Anytime a pass holder presents an Interagency Annual, Annual – Military, or Volunteer Pass the expiration date and signature must be checked. Because the holders of 4th Grade Passes may not have photo IDs, ask if the pass holder is present.
“Since passes are non-transferable, the verification of ownership is a legitimate component of the program. As stated on the back of the Pass, valid photo ID is required, and pass signatures will be compared to verify ownership.”
Matt is a prolific tweeter, and has some 250K followers.
If I were king…..
All public lands would cost nothing to enter, or camp at, and all campgrounds would have a huge overflow area. The system is set up to discourage use, which is wrong. Oh ya, and only Federal employees, good way to start people out working for the Feds.