The U.S. Department of the Interior adopted Recreation.gov in 2016, which promised to increase access to recreation for everyone. This is simply not true. Recreation.gov is largely an elitist and dysfunctional system that removes access and opportunities for people who do not have a computer device and good internet service and displaces local access. Moreover, recreation.gov has set up a situation where campsites are frequently sitting empty while people who need a place to camp are unable to use the vacant space without the risk of being fined. I was recently told that amount would be $500 by one National Park Ranger when I asked what would happen if I came back and took over a vacant campsite later that night. On more than one occasion, I have personally witnessed near-empty campgrounds when every campsite was reserved. Perhaps the National Parks and Federal land managers care more about the money than the outdoor experiences they are purportedly protecting?
Recreation.gov is being used as a one size fits all solution, and is being implemented by people who seem to lack awareness about how they are changing both access and outdoor experiences through the use of this system. Those of us who have been running rivers since before recreation.gov have seen a drastic change and reduction in access to our local rivers. The existing system was not perfect by any measure but recreation.gov takes elitist control to a new level and almost ensures that people with more money and more social connection will always have access to these experiences while those who are of lower socioeconomic status and less socially connected may rarely, if ever, get an opportunity again without change.
If we want people to support the National Park System, and see value in preservation, we should recognize the importance of local people feeling like they have access to their local lands. This should be recognized as a critical issue that will eventually undermine support from the very people we need to sustain such efforts. The message is local interests and support are insignificant; only profit and convenience are valued.
If recreation.gov is going to continue to control access to outdoor experiences there are a few things that need to change:
1) We want a significant percentage of campsites in each campground that are first-come-first-serve and can only be reserved at the campground.
2) We want significant consequences for people who do not cancel their reservation so others can use the campsite or permit. For example, most river permits stipulate that the holder will be barred from reserving future permits if they fail to show up at the launch site or do not cancel their reservation. This is usually a season or two and varies by location.
3) We want a weighted lottery system for reserving river permits so the same people are not running the same river year after year. The Grand Canyon uses a system like this and it has helped resolve this problem.
4) We want a balance between commercial and noncommercial permits so private boating is not taken over by commercial interests.