Last year for Christmas, my partner gave me a National Parks Pass, which gave us free entry to as many National Parks as we wanted for 2022. The pass costs $80, and most National Parks charge about $30 per vehicle so because I am a thrifty person I committed to visiting at least three in 2022. Luckily, I live in the Bay Area and California is home to more National Parks than any other state, so I knew I could do it on the cheap, driving to all my nearest parks and camping there with my partner and my dog, Indy.
All told, it was pretty cheap considering we did three major trips and ended up hitting FOUR National Parks, one National Monument and a bonus trip to Mammoth Lakes, even considering that gas prices were through the roof at the time. But there was one expense that, while minor, was very annoying: that would be some of the money I spent reserving our stays via recreation.gov.
Okay, first of all let me be very clear: hotels, Airbnbs, and VRBOs are expensive and campsites in our National Parks, comparatively speaking, are cheap. This campsite, located on the bank of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, cost me in total $46. Worth it? Abso-fucking lutely. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and those views, that solitude, and that cool, calm water made it worth five times that to be honest.
But only $36 of that cost was for the actual campsite. $10 was what I spent on a lottery ticket.
That’s right, lotteries aren’t just for people looking to become overnight billionaires: they’re also now for people who want to experience the majesty of nature found in the US taxpayer-funded National Park system.
At first this made sense to me: lots of people want to check out Yosemite, especially since COVID reminded people that there’s more to life than sitting at a computer typing, and if we just let everyone in, they might overwhelm the park, scare all the cute little bears, leave trash everywhere, and stress out the 19th century infrastructure. Plus, who goes into the wilderness just to see other people? Gross! I hate them! Ugly bags of mostly water.
So we need to find ways to limit numbers, and that means it’s very very difficult to get reservations to camp in Yosemite, especially during the busy late spring/summer/early fall seasons. I actually was able to snag one in 2021 by waking up at 7am on the day they were made available and grabbed one single campsite on a random Tuesday anywhere I could, but then I ended up having to cancel it because I got married that day instead. Priorities.
For this year, I was informed that I could pay $10 to enter a lottery, which, if I “won,” would allow me to choose my campsite at my leisure and maybe even get (shock) two nights in a row? I forked over the $10. I lost. I did not get my $10 back because such is the nature of a lottery. Then I logged on at 7am six months before I wanted to visit the park. All the campsites were reserved within seconds and I couldn’t get one.
But wait, you know how this story ends because I already showed you the campsite I stayed at. How did I get it? Well! Turns out there are a lot of private services that use a bot to continually search for campsites that other people cancel and then send you an alert so that you can rush to your computer and grab it before anyone else. Most of those services charge for this: you pay for how often they check (daily, hourly, or every five minutes) and how many times they check for you.
But again, I am very thrifty and after a lot of research I found a tool some other lovely outdoor lovers coded for free: Campflare. I entered the dates I wanted, and when a site eventually became available I booked it. It just so happens that it is one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever seen. Lucky me!
A slightly annoying process but worth it, right? Sure, I lost $10 on a losing lottery ticket but at least that money went to the parks service, right? Well, no. And I wish I could say I didn’t know this at the time, but I did know it and I did it anyway because I really wanted that campsite: that $10 went into the pocket of Booz Allen, a multi-billion dollar corporation that Bloomberg once called “the World’s Most Profitable Spy Organization.” Yes. The $10 I paid to recreation.gov for a CHANCE to get a campsite at Yosemite National Park helped fund the world’s most profitable spy organization. Fun! Also by the way Booz Allen is the company that fired Edward Snowden after he leaked documents revealing widespread mass surveillance by the NSA.
In 2017, the US government was looking for an easy way to upgrade their reservation system, and because we’ve systematically defunded services like this and neo-liberals have brain worms, they agreed to let Booz Allen code the site, at apparently no upfront cost to the taxpayer but allowing the corporation to set up extra fees that they could determine more or less arbitrarily. That includes these lotteries, which aren’t just for things like Yosemite campsites. As Cory Doctorow points out on Twitter, Recreation.gov offers lotteries for all kinds of things, like hiking permits that pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars per site per year for Booz Allen. Cory’s thread was why I finally decided to make this video by the way, considering that I saw it the very same week I got an email encouraging me to try again for a Yosemite campsite in the 2023 lottery. Which I entered. Because I have (different) brain worms.
Cory rightfully compares Booz Allen’s Rec.gov scheme to Ticketmaster, which has grown into such an obvious example of a capitalist dystopian nightmare that Taylor Swift fans are now poised to take it down because it wouldn’t even let them pay hundreds of dollars to see Taylor Swift.
You might criticize me for complaining about wasting several hours of time and a lousy ten bucks to have the privilege of experiencing nature in all its glory. And you’d be right that I WAS able to finally have the joy of swimming in the Merced River as the sun sets over Yosemite Valley. But that’s just it: National Parks shouldn’t be protected just for people like me, who can take time off from work whenever I want, and who can afford to throw away ten dollars at a whim, and who has the knowledge to navigate this system, and who has a laptop and a phone and a watch that will ping me when it’s time to book.
In fact, researchers at University of Montana found in a study published last spring that campgrounds that use Recreation.gov are more likely to have white, high-income visitors than those that accept walk-ins. Ironically, the team suggests that maybe a lottery system would solve the problem. Hmm.
National Parks are frequently called “America’s Best Idea,” a program that protects our wild places while at the same time, supposedly, making them available to everyone. But what has happened is that these lands have become a resort for the 10%, enriching billion dollar private corporations while shutting out the people who would probably benefit most from witnessing the incredibly beautiful, inspiring, and educational vistas within.
It’s not exactly shocking, considering the dodgy start National Parks had – indigenous historians point out that the parks were created by murdering and driving out Native tribes. I may never have enjoyed the beauty of Yosemite National Park were it not for a California militia going there specifically to kill the Miwok people to prevent them from getting in the way of gold prospectors. They were starved, shot, and driven out of Yosemite and into reservations, and so now I can pay $35 to camp there.
Our National Park system will always have that bloody history, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t make things better. I think it is an important, even necessary thing to have protected lands that are there for the public good, but we can make it better. I’m not sure if we’re anywhere close to giving this land back to the indigenous tribes that tended to them for millennia, but we can at least start improving the way that we make these spaces available to everyone. As Matt Stoller points out in his newsletter, in October of 2023, Congress will need to renew Booz Allen’s authorization to charge these fees and they could absolutely rein the corporation in, or the Biden Administration can just crack down and eliminate the fees.
That will be a good start, but I think what we’re seeing is that the entire system needs an overhaul. There are ways to ensure equity in who gets to see what parks, but we won’t stumble into those when we put multi-billion dollar military contractors in charge, whose goal isn’t equity, or conservation, but making even more money than yesterday.