News and Analysis
[Addendum added 2:00 p.m., February 27]
Wilson, et al., v. Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc., et al.
Note: I received a communication on Monday, February 27, from the media relations office of Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. The firm issued a statement regarding this lawsuit. It has been added at the end of this article. RB
A federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, VA, could upend the operation of Recreation.gov, the website that RVers and other recreational users must use to reserve campsites on federal lands.
Since 2018, the U.S. government has outsourced the operation of Recreation.gov to Booz Allen Hamilton (“Booz Allen”) of Fairfax, VA, a vast international consulting firm and major U.S. federal contractor. During that time, Booz Allen redesigned the Recreation.gov website and smartphone app and began taking reservations. The company created a fee structure for its services that included an array of fees for making campground reservations, acquiring hiking and river rafting permits, drive-through vehicle permits for national parks and monuments, and other recreational activities. Recreation.gov reveals no disclosure that the site is operated by any entity other than the federal land agencies. The use of the top-level domain attribute “.gov” adds to the opaque nature of the site.
Lawsuit filed for refunds of “Junk Fees”
On February 11, 2023, the Washington, D.C., law firm Tycko & Zavareei LLP filed a lawsuit against Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. over the fees on behalf of seven plaintiffs, requesting certification as a class action. Plaintiffs are seeking more than $5 million in refunds of fees the law firm calls “Junk Fees” and compensatory and punitive damages.
In their complaint, plaintiffs aver that their case is about holding Booz Allen, a multibillion-dollar for-profit federal contractor, responsible for forcing American consumers to pay “Ticketmaster-style Junk Fees” to access National Parks and other federal recreational lands in violation of the Federal Lands Recreational Enhancement Act (“FLREA”).
The complaint cites many so-called Junk Fees, such as those that Recreation.gov charges users through the Recreation.gov website and app. They include, among other things, “park access reservation fees,” “processing fees,” “reservation fees,” “permit fees,” “lottery fees,” and “cancellation fees.”
The lawsuit differentiates between the so-called junk and bogus fees and does not include “use fees” lawfully charged and retained by the Federal Agencies and not paid to Booz Allen.
13 federal agencies use Recreation.gov
Altogether, 13 federal agencies use Recreation.gov for reservation services for consumer access to their lands: the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Federal Highway Administration, National Archives & Records Administration, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, Presidio Trust, Smithsonian Institution, Tennessee Valley Authority, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and US Forest Service. Booz Allen processed more than 9 million transactions in 2021 alone through Recreation.gov.
This is not the first time Booz Allen has been summoned to federal court over the issue of charges prohibited by the FLREA. According to court testimony in Kotab v. Bureau of Land Management, a 2022 case challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) authority to assess a $2 processing fee for entry to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, the court ruled that the fee violated the FLREA. While collecting and dispersing the “processing fees,” money is collected through Recreation.gov, routed to the U.S. Treasury, then reimbursed to Booz Allen.
Even when a federal agency does not charge a fee, such as a timed entry permit at a National Park, Booz Allen, through Recreation.gov, levies a transaction fee to process each permit.
The case seeks to hold Booz Allen responsible for forcing American consumers to pay what it calls “hundreds of millions of dollars in Ticketmaster-style Junk Fees” to access National Parks and other federal recreational lands, as well as to prevent Booz Allen from charging such fees in the future.
Millions of reservations
From 2002 until 2018, the federal government ran Recreation.gov and facilitated millions of reservations to National Parks and other federal lands. The website takeover by Booz Allen in 2018 was done under an exclusive contract that court documents assert gave the consulting firm “broad discretion and autonomy independent of the Federal Agencies, along with the exclusive authority to determine the amount of fees” charged to consumers through Recreation.gov.
In seeking class action certification, the suit divides the plaintiffs into classes—a national class, including every consumer who paid fees through Recreation.gov, military veterans, disabled veterans, Gold Star Families (survivors of U.S. military personnel killed in action), and specific aggrieved consumers who are residents of the states of California, Florida, New York, Utah, and Washington.
The lawsuit seeks declaratory judgment of the court that the fees charged by Booz Allen violated 16 U.S.C. §§ 6801 (the FLREA) and amounted to unjust enrichment as a predicate to awarding actual, compensatory, and statutory damages.
This lawsuit could impact every person who has used Recreation.gov
Wilson v. Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. has the potential to impact every person in the USA who has used Recreation.gov to make a reservation for the recreational use of federal lands. All such persons are covered by inclusion in the national class of the action. If successful, plaintiffs will receive restitution of the fees not allowed by the FLREA and could score compensatory and punitive damage awards as well. The case also asks the court to enjoin the defendant from continuing to charge the disputed fees and to force them to “provide truthful, accurate and prominently displayed disclosures to consumers to reflect that Booz Allen operated Recreation.gov.”
RVtravel.com will continue to monitor this important federal case and report developments. Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. has until March 10, 2023, to file its answer.
Addendum: On Monday afternoon, February 27, I received the following statement from Ashley Howard, Senior Associate in the Booz Allen Media Relations and Corporate Affairs Office:
Booz Allen is aware of a complaint recently filed in Virginia federal court related to Recreation.gov. Its 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. We will vigorously defend against these meritless claims.
It’s about time that they start charging for what is supposed to be available for the Public
It is no surprise whatsoever that this mess would have begun under the leadership of Ryan Zinke, Trump’s appointee to the position of Secretary of the Interior, who oversaw all the federal agencies affected by this private profiteering of public property. Zinke was plagued by charges of malfeasance and ethics scandals during his two years in his position, and the only question in my mind is how far does the sharing of these ill-gotten gains go among others in the Trump administration?
I was thinking along the same lines when I saw that their contract began in 2018. That was during the Trump administration, but it’s probably more of a Republican “privatize the government” thing than specifically a Trump thing.
Trump is and will be again the best thing for American
The best thing for America is for Trump and his co-conspirators to be in prison. You advocating for his treasonous attempts to overthrow our democratic republic form of government further exacerbates the problem.
When reading this it was unclear how Booz Allen gets paid in their arrangement with the Govt. Information Technology (IT) is not free. It’s very expensive. I know this because I worked most of my IT career for very large outsourcing companies in mid market and large accounts. The general public have no idea what it takes to manage a site such as this one.
Not knowing the actual terms of their contract and the specific language it’s hard to say. Does the federal govt just charge their fees according to their needs for that particular park or do some of those go to Booz Allen. If,however,the only way Booz Allen can make money is by charging ‘convenience fees’ then in my mind, it’s appropriate.
No one likes extra fees, myself included but there is more to this than most people realize. In the end if Booz Allen can’t charge their fees then chances are we will see a rise in the govt cost for the site by that amount. It’s going be pay me now or pay me later but either way you got to pay.
Tycko & Zavareei LLP is in the business of filing class action lawsuits. I recommend you keep this in mind when evaluating the merits of their claims.
The firm’s specialty has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the merits of their case.
That’s true, Randall. And I was going reply to this comment earlier (but got sidetracked with a radiator) and suggest that folks should check out their impressive track record. Have a good night. 😀 –Diane
Junk “Fees” are just that, extract as much profit at the expense of the average consumer. If in doubt, make up a fancy name and put the word fee after it. Presto, new yacht for Boozo Allen
And RVtravel.com is in the business of selling information related to RV travel. Neither statement has any relevance here.
What do you expect from a “Beltway bandit?” I don’t know what the best solution is. Maybe govt agencies should be educated that they work for the taxpayer/camping customer so put in contract clauses to that effect, and require accurate customer cost reporting which will be reviewed as part of the next contract award?
I looked at my account and had 3 campsite uses thru recreation.gov last year. Two of them, at the same park in TN, were reasonable and only listed the “camping fee.” The third, at Colter Bay RV Park, was obscene, primarily for the $58 for 1 night of electricity.
Here is the total for that one night stay. Somebody is making a pretty good profit.
Colter Bay RV Park
440, C( RV ELECTRIC )
Pass Discount ($20.50)
Water Hookup $2.00
Camping Use Fee $41.00
Sales Tax $2.26
Electricity Hookup $58.00
Sales Tax $6.60
They didn’t even come in and make my bed either. Excessive? I don’t know.
I believe that campground is run by a subcontractor, so they can charge what they want. RVing in general is to the point of it’s a rich man’s sport.
The fees have gotten out of hand, so much closer oversight and limiting is due. Also, so many of these kinds of sites, the people in charge let the programmers run amok and they start changing things, just to show they can (like they want to showcase their programming skills), but far too often, those changes are not needed, not wanted, and just make such sites harder to use. And yes, cancellation fees (unless like w/i 24 hrs) need to go away. Then more people will release unneeded reservations, so others can book.
“the people in charge let the programmers run amok and they start changing things, just to show they can” That is the most true statement I’ve ever read. I’m convinced there is a whole segment of employed people whose jobs depend on redoing something, making it “better”, changing it, tweaking it, reevaluating it, and then they create a new computer/internet platform that we all have to adapt to until they are sitting idly at their jobs and not doing a thing to earn their salary so then they decide it is time to redo something, make it “better”, change it, tweak it, reevaluate it on ad infinitum. Then we painfully have to readapt to the new system. Meanwhile, to justify their job and salary, they again continue to tweak, change, redo, reevaluate, make it “better” again so they have a job. And on and on it goes. Having grown up computer free and cell phone free and internet free, I’ve realized the inventors of these products have made life impossible to function in unless you buy/adapt to using their products. I cannot go to a zoo/botanical garden in my community unless I log on to a computer/smartphone and reserve a reservation time.
John and Kris .. there is a lot of guessing and not much fact .. Maybe the real problem is having an expansive reservation system at all..
Let me tell you something. You are pretty much ALL correct on this issue, even though our opinions are all over the place. See how complex this topic gets? I have been on all sides of this issue. I’ve worked for government as a computer programmer. I’ve worked alongside private web/IT contractors who, as Neal states below, even does it better and faster than we could have. (I’ll add that we government employees were not lazy and useless though, at least not as individuals; but I’ll agree the bureaucracy is thick.) I’m also a full-time RVer who uses rec.gov to make reservations and I hate the TicketMaster-like greed. I’m also a camp host in a National Forest using a web system that is not as good as rec.gov, so I see the need for it. And basically it’s almost impossible to find a contractor/third party to provide a service if they’re not guaranteed to become filthy rich in the process, regardless of how they do it. It’s just the way of the world these days. All sides are valid.
Best site on the internet to make reservations. Could care less what fees a third party is making. It makes my life ridiculously easy for camping. I guarantee we don’t want the feds handling this themselves.
I used it multiple times back when the feds were running it. I had no issues whatsoever. The first time Boozy Allen was assigned the task of handling BWCAW permit applications, it was a massive you-know-what:
I am glad the fees will be looked at and adjudicated through this process. I acknowledge that such a system requires some type of revenue to build but the fees are really high for it. I hope that the fees will be reduced to something proportional to actual cost and $10 cancellation fees go away so people will release unused sites instead of letting them sit empty. Additionally, transparency of the fees and consistency across platforms will be appreciated if the plaintiffs win the lawsuit.
Excellent reporting of the facts about surcharges that could be avoided if the profit motive were removed. When did it become fashionable to slag government employees as slow witted, incompetent, and outsource everything under the sun ?
How can it be more cost efficient to pay two agencies to do the job of one ? Surely this is Rupert Murdoch’s work undermining our confidence n our government’s competence or is Reagan’s legacy at play in this comment string?
2018? Sounds more like Donald Trump’s legacy
Wow! I had no idea that recreation.gov was run by a third party. Everytime I have ever made a reservation through them, I have paid a fee. Plus, if I cancel, I’m hit with an additional fee. Same with Reserve America for state parks.
Nothing will ever be paid out. They’ll file bankruptcy and open up under a new name. Lawyers will get paid and no one else.
Hmm… I have a reservation next month through Recreation.gov. No added fees. $30 a nite x 7 nites = $210
Just added another reservation in my cart for next week, no extra fees, no extra charges. $34 a night x 2 nights = $68
Don’t know if it’s dependent on what state the park is in or what.
Same here, I’ve never been charged, on recreation.gov, any additional fee when making a camping reservation.
When you get there, see what the difference is between the price on the check in sign, and what you paid to BAH. My local campground is $18 on rec.gov and $10 in person. That’s your fee. Every site has them, some are sneakier than others. Just because it’s not a line item on your receipt doesn’t mean you aren’t being charged extra to access your public lands.
This is a silly waste of time and effort. Booz, Allen has expertise that federal employees lack. As a federal retiree I have extensive experience observing the capabilities of employees adapting (as in failing to adapt) to advancing technology. For example, I was competent putting our reports onto the internet in the early days. Once style sheets came along, then I was lost and quickly supplanted by, first, younger feds, and, later, by contractors.
Contractors can more quickly, easily hire tech-savy youngsters who write the code running behind the scenes. Young feds with such capability quickly chaff under the slowness of advancement within federal government and leave. The ones who stay are the ones not good enough to leave. If Booze Allen is run out, then, at best, costs will remain the same (I have no confidence in that outcome). Booz, Allen gets its fees or the feds get a bigger budget because they have to hire Booz, Allen-like people to do the Booz, Allen-like work.
It’s about #!@%&€£ time! Recreation.gov and virtually all land management companies handling federal, state and county campgrounds in the US have been given a license to defraud the citizens and the government. This amounts to defrauding us twice for the same transaction!😤
I hope this is allowed to go forward!
The only people who didn’t know this was run by a private company are the people who just don’t pay attention or just don’t care.
The junk fees are definitely out of control. But the alternative wasn’t much better. The reservation system before was a fustercluck of different agencies all with thier own system and rules. You couldn’t even get online reservations for half of what’s available now.
If we still had actual journalists today we’d get both sides of the story instead of just whatever gets the most clicks…
We frequent national parks for over 30 years now . Somewhere in the last few years the fee to reserve a campsite was eliminated. Before that in 2016 we paid nearly $300 in fees. Cancelations still have a fee though.
Question why would a company want a job that doesn’t pay ( I’m aware they must get subsidies)
The park’s we frequent camp fees are quite reasonable ( cheap when compared to private & state)
I figure this lawsuit won’t end well for us campers.
I hope they win ! All these “FEES” are just adding to the cost of RVing and should stop.
I am going to have a drink of “BOOZ” and try to continue RVing without breaking the bank.
They should be made to change the website to “RecreationAtGovmntSites.com”. Then we would all know we are NOT using a government site. Buyer beware.
It is a government site. It was developed and is operated by contractors on behalf of the government.
Here is a quote from Recreation.Gov website that does say who is running it…..
DisclaimersDisclaimer and Liability NoticeThis website and the information it contains are provided as a public service by Booz Allen Hamilton under contract to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, and Recreation One Stop participating agencies. This system is monitored to ensure proper operation, to verify the functioning of applicable security features, and for comparable purposes. Anyone using this system expressly consents to such monitoring. Unauthorized attempts to modify any information stored on this system, to defeat or circumvent security features, or to utilize this system for other than its intended purposes are prohibited and may result in criminal prosecution.
It’s under Site Map-General-Disclaimers