A visitor canoes at dawn near Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., on June 21, 2017. ​(Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management).
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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. 

The filing raises the question of whether Recreation.gov in effect has privatized public lands for the benefit of Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc., which operates the site. It was filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and asks the court to order Booz Allen to refund to consumers processing, lottery, and cancellation fees charged on the website and mobile app.

A screenshot from Recreation.gov displaying campsites available for reservation.

The lawsuit was brought by seven outdoor enthusiasts who are seeking to have the matter certified as a class action. Recreation.gov handles reservations for dozens of federally owned campgrounds and recreational sites in Wisconsin, including the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and Bureau of Land Management-owned islands in the Wisconsin River.

“We are not challenging the use fees that go toward funding access to federal lands. We are challenging the transactional junk fees that are being paid 100 cents on the dollar to Booz Allen,” said plaintiffs’ attorney, Wesley M. Griffith of Tycko & Zavareei.

Key to the plaintiffs’ case is whether the fees are allowed under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), which specifically lists fees that can be collected at National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sites and how they are to be spent.

A U.S. District Court ruling last year in Nevada held that a “processing fee” charged by Recreation.gov to access the reservation system to visit a national conservation area managed by the BLM was improperly administered because the public hadn’t been given an opportunity to review and comment on the fees, as required under FLREA.

The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest sign shot on July 13, 2020. (Seclusive Nature on Flickr)

The current lawsuit, which cited the Nevada ruling, alleges that Booz Allen’s fees are akin to questionable fees Ticketmaster affixes on entertainment ticket purchases, and which have surfaced in car rental agreements and even hotel stays. The Biden administration has dubbed such add-on charges “junk fees.”

While the lawsuit seeks to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in fees for those who use Recreation.gov to reserve campsites, float rivers and head into the backcountry in the National Park System and other federal lands, Booz Allen says the “allegations are grossly inaccurate and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of Booz Allen’s work supporting the government.”

“We are proud of our work and the value that Recreation.gov provides,” said Ashley Howard, senior associate in media relations for corporate affairs for the McLean, Virginia-based law firm, in an email to the Traveler. “We will vigorously defend against these meritless claims.”

Recreation.gov’s fee structure

In 2016, Booz Allen signed a five-year contract with the U.S. Forest Service to manage the Recreation.gov portal for the federal government, including the National Park Service. 

“Instead of a traditional cost structure, the unique contractual agreement is a transaction-based fee model that lets the government and Booz Allen share in risk, reward, results, and impacts. This is a true public-private partnership — it uses no government money,” notes Booz Allen on its website.

Wisconsin Rapids pictured on June 20, 2017. ​(Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management)

While the government contractor says there is no cost to the federal government for operating Recreation.gov, media reports and court documents in 2017 tied a $182 million figure to the contract that was signed by the Obama administration in 2016. Additionally, in its 2021 budget request, the Forest Service sought $120 million for an “interagency funded contract (that) supports reservations for all recreation facilities on public lands that allow reservations.”

The Traveler has requested a copy of the contract under the federal Freedom of Information Act and details of the Forest Service’s budget request. According to a statement made under oath last year in the Nevada case, the processing fees go to the U.S. Treasury, which in turn reimburses Booz Allen the additional fees.

Until just recently, many national parks handled their own backcountry reservations and accepted the fees themselves. But in recent years, parks have been pushed into the Recreation.gov system. Among the parks that recently transitioned to Recreation.gov for reservations were Yellowstone National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Hot Springs National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.

At Congaree National Park, officials attributed a recent increase in campsite reservation fees to the cost of using Recreation.gov to manage reservations.

Understanding FLREA

The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act authorizes five agencies — NPS, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service — to collect specific fees for on-site improvements to be used to enhance the visitor experience, such as trail work, habitat restoration and interpretive programs. The law allows the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to charge entrance fees, and all five agencies to levy “expanded amenity fee” for specialized facilities, services and recreation permits. 

FLREA requires public participation in setting fees. In their complaint, plaintiffs cite the Nevada case in which the court found the $2 recreation fee to visit Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada did not comply with FLREA’s public participation requirements.

Park visitors get ready to load the cruise boat at Stockton Island and make their way back to Bayfield. The Apostle Islands Cruise Service offers day trips to the islands and shuttles for overnight campers. (Courtesy of National Park Service)

According to the Congressional Research Service, “the agencies have broad discretion in using fee revenues for purposes specified in FLREA that aim to benefit visitors directly. … (and) may not use more than 15% of collections for program administration, overhead, and indirect costs.”

FLREA is authorized through October 1, 2023.

The revenues Booz Allen garners from its add-on fees are separate from entrance and recreational fees — such as nightly campsite rentals and backcountry permits — charged by national parks and other federal agency recreation sites served by Recreation.gov.

Even when a federal agency does not charge a fee —such as for a timed entry permit at Arches National Park — Booz Allen levies a transaction fee to process each permit. In 2022, 310,033 visitors entered Arches with a timed entry permit, said Kaitlyn Thomas, public affairs specialist, in an email. Recreation.gov charged $2 per vehicle, resulting in $620,000 for Booz Allen.

Millions of transactions — and many millions in revenue

Exactly how much Booz Allen reaps from Recreation.gov is not publicly known, nor is how much it costs to operate Recreation.gov on an annual basis. The lawsuit contends that Recreation.gov handled 9 million transactions in 2021 and generates “tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars of revenue every year for Booz Allen, constituting a complete windfall.”

A camper staying at a Wisconsin River Campsite located in Wood County, Wisconsin is pictured on August 10, 2013. (Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management)

Along with processing fees, Recreation.gov charges nonrefundable $6 lottery fees that go to Booz Allen for a wide range of recreational activities, such as climbing Mount Whitney in California, spending the night in the Enchantment Permit Area in the Cascade Mountains in Washington state and running the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

Last year there were 22,435 lottery applicants for a permit to run the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. Only 330 individuals received a permit. Yet, all applicants paid the $6 lottery fee — even unsuccessful lottery applicants. Under Booz Allen’s arrangement with the federal government, it could pocket all lottery fees, which amounted to $134,610 just for the Middle Fork lottery.

The lawsuit does not delve into operational issues with Recreation.gov that many have complained about. According to testimony given before the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in December, someone trying to reserve a campsite has a 0.3 percent chance of landing the desired reservation.

A longer version of this story was published by the National Parks Traveler, a small, editorially independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit media organization. The Traveler is not part of the federal government nor a corporate subsidiary. 


Here are some of the Recreation.gov fees in dispute

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Booz Allen maintain the unique arrangement earns the law firm a bonanza through the fees it charges on a per reservation basis. There are multiple categories of fees charged, including:

  • $15 nonrefundable application fee to float the Yampa and Green Rivers in Dinosaur National Monument
  • $10 cancellation fee for campsite cancellations
  • $10 change fee to add or remove a night’s campsite stay or to move to a different site
  • $10 reservation fee to secure a backcountry permit
  • $6 non-refundable reservation fee to obtain a climbing permit at Acadia National Park’s Otter Cliffs
  • $2 non-refundable administrative fee for vehicle trips to Cadillac Summit at Acadia National Park
  • $1 application fee for all lottery applicants to view fireflies at Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

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