National Park Visits are surging and one firm is making unexpected millions

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Hamilton runs Recreation.gov, making money on user transactions such as vehicle passes for Montana’s Glacier National Park. ALAMY

By Guest author Allison Pohle from the Wall Street Journal. Inti Pacheco contributed to this article.

Visitors driving into Montana’s Glacier National Park this summer must buy a vehicle pass on Recreation.gov. The pass is free, but visitors pay a USD 2 fee to book the reservation.

Visitors might assume that, like entrance fees, the reservation charges help pay for improving trails around the park’s Running Eagle Falls or expanding the park’s volunteer program. But a chunk of the money ends up with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.

Booz Allen runs Recreation.gov, the website and app where people book campsites, hikes and permits on U.S. public land. The company has a five-year contract that is up for renewal this year. In its bid for the work, Booz Allen used data provided by the government to estimate that over the first five years of the contract, it would receive USD 87 million, and a total of about USD 182 million over 10 years.

Booz Allen gets paid every time a user makes a reservation on Recreation.gov, per its government contract. That has earned the company money far beyond the projections in its bid.

Booz Allen invoiced the government for more than USD 140 million from October 2018 to November 2022, the most recent date available, according to documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal in a public-records request. Ten months remain to be counted for that initial five-year period.

This arrangement for the Recreation.gov program, in which the government and Booz Allen work together on a number of services including a reservation website, contact center and data sharing, has led to criticism from some park goers. They have questioned whether the government negotiated a payment structure that is in the public’s best interest.

Government officials say this payment structure shifts the risk onto the contractor. Asked about the Recreation.gov contract over time, the government said it continuously re-evaluates market trends when striking a deal related to reservations on public lands.

Visits to public lands surged during the pandemic as Americans vacationed outdoors, prompting many parks to add reservation systems to manage crowds and protect natural resources.

That has meant travelers often cannot visit popular public lands like Rocky Mountain National Park without booking on Recreation.gov first and paying a fee. Charges from around the nation include USD 2 to book an entry time to a park, USD 9 to enter a hiking lottery, and many others.

Booz Allen leadership has described the benefits of per-transaction fee structures like the one Recreation.gov uses. “One thing I learned in B-school, for all that money, it’s a small number times a big number is a big number,” Booz Allen president and chief executive Horacio Rozanski said at the 2019 Citi Global Technology Conference.

Applications to a lottery to visit the Wave, a popular spot at Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, cost USD 9. Photo: ALAMY

He also pointed to upgrades the company made to the site and called the per-transaction model a “much more effective and productive” way of doing business than by-the-hour payment models.

The arrangement has its critics, including members of a lawsuit against Booz Allen seeking class-action status, and other die-hard national park visitors. They say the government has let a multibillion-dollar company profit by charging for access to public lands—access that used to cost less, or nothing. The lawyers said in the suit that the company is “forcing American consumers to pay Ticketmaster-style junk fees to access national parks and other federal recreational lands.”

Booz Allen says such claims mischaracterize its work and its compensation structure. Recreation.gov officials say the arrangement is an example of efficiency in government: Users get a technologically sound website at no cost to taxpayers. Park officials say the system has eliminated hours spent processing cash transactions. Government officials also say the government has earned significantly more fee revenue than it would have without the contract and that Booz Allen’s bid was “substantially lower” than its competitors’ bids.

The site

The pay-per-transaction model has existed for federal reservation services like Recreation.gov since the mid-1990s, federal officials say. They say the structure gives contractors incentive to continuously improve Recreation.gov.

Booz Allen isn’t the first company to run Recreation.gov. When the company bid for the contract in 2016, government officials gave it historical reservation data and figures for projected growth to inform how much operating the site might cost, the website’s government staffers say.

Since Booz Allen took over, the site’s scope has grown, along with the number of fees. Recreation.gov offers reservations at over 121000 individual sites. Federal officials say the expanded services give park managers more tools to manage visitation, including venue reservations, timed-entry tickets, even permits to cut down Christmas trees on public land.

More than 23 million users had Recreation.gov accounts in the 2022 fiscal year. The site covers services from 13 different federal agencies, including the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Booz Allen’s contract allows it to run Recreation.gov for five years, with five subsequent one-year options based on performance. In addition to running the reservation system, the company also manages a customer call center and an internal mobile app for agencies.

It is hard for park visitors to know where their money goes when they make a reservation. Dozens of Recreation.gov users said they assumed all fees go to benefit the lands they visit.

Over 23 million people used Recreation.gov in the 2022 fiscal year to access spots like the Angels Landing trail at Zion National Park in Utah. Photo: ALAMY

In the invoices obtained by the Journal, the per-transaction amounts paid to Booz Allen were redacted, due to what the government says are trade secrets. Booz Allen has made a similar claim about these amounts in response to the recent suit.

About 10 million reservations were made on Recreation.gov in the 2022 fiscal year, up from 3.76 million in the 2019 fiscal year, according to Recreation.gov officials. They say the amount paid to Booz Allen for each transaction hasn’t changed in the five years and the recent visitation boom brought unexpected revenue through Recreation.gov, and thus to Booz Allen.

The Forest Service oversees the Recreation.gov contract. Gordie Blum, the agency’s acting director of recreation, heritage and volunteer resources, says having the company run the reservations system is a great value, given the technical requirements needed. It has generated hundreds of millions in recreation fees that go back to parks, forests and public lands, distinct from the fees that fund Booz Allen’s operation, Forest Service officials say.

The visitors

Some visitors have welcomed the reservation programs as a tool that reduces crowds, which protects park wildlife and improves the experience for park goers. Others have criticized the restriction of entry to public lands and have lamented the difficulty in getting reservations.

“It really galls me that my tax dollars are going to maintaining that public asset, but then somebody is privately profiting off of it,” says Spencer Heinz, a 29-year-old mechanical engineer from Portland, Ore., who uses Recreation.gov for backpacking permits.

The lawsuit filed in January in Virginia by seven outdoor enthusiasts claims the fees deceive visitors into thinking that the money goes directly to aid public lands. The complaint says Booz Allen is charging fees similar to ambiguous entertainment and travel surcharges President Biden labelled “junk fees” in his February State of the Union address.

Booz Allen is seeking to dismiss the suit. A company spokeswoman said the 13 federal agencies determine whether to charge fees on Recreation.gov and how those fees are structured, collected and ultimately used.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers say the fees violate a federal rule that allows public lands to charge recreation fees.

The lawyers cite a March 2022 ruling in a separate case, which found that a USD 2 Recreation.gov processing fee to access Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon wasn’t adopted properly because it wasn’t subject to public notice. The 2023 suit argues that the current fees are similarly illegal, and should be refunded to Recreation.gov users.

In its response to the suit, Booz Allen said in a legal filing that it can’t be tried separately from the federal agencies that use Recreation.gov. The company also said it doesn’t have the authority to refund the fees because it doesn’t charge travelers. “Booz Allen does not charge any fees to—nor does it receive any fees from—the users of Recreation.gov, including the plaintiffs,” the Booz Allen spokeswoman said in an email.

The company earns a commission for each transaction processed on Recreation.gov, according to 2022 testimony from Rick DeLappe, interagency program manager for Recreation.gov. The processing fees are first held in a U.S. Treasury account before they are paid to Booz Allen each month, he added.

Christine Wong, a 36-year-old physician from Honolulu, says she has submitted at least 10 applications to visit the popular destination known as the Wave near the Utah-Arizona border in Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Applying to the lottery for a chance to visit the Wave, which can accommodate 64 people each day, costs $9, whether the application is successful or not.

Of the USD 9, USD 5 ultimately goes to Booz Allen and USD 4 goes to the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the site, a BLM spokesman said.

Recreation.gov users submitted about 130000 applications for permits to hike the Wave last year, generating about USD 648200 for Booz Allen and USD 518600 for the BLM, a BLM spokesman says. The BLM also collected about USD 35500 in permit fees from successful applicants, he says.

Ms. Wong says she considered her numerous unsuccessful applications a donation, not a payment to a third party.

“I always assumed the fee went to the park,” she says.

Corrections & Amplifications
In an earlier version of this story, a caption misidentified a photograph’s location. The photograph depicted Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park, not Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The photograph has been removed. (Corrected on April 9)

Appeared in the April 7, 2023, print edition as ‘National Park Visits Surge, and One Firm Benefits’.

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