Next month the Department of Agriculture will award a 3 1/2 -year contract to a private company that will streamline the way Americans make camping reservations at national parklands.
Depending on which of three companies is selected, booking a campsite may feel like scoring concert tickets -- right down to the transaction fees.
Though online reservations are not new for national parks and forests, the comprehensive contract expected to be awarded in May would allow millions of campers to use a single service when booking campgrounds and cabins managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers.
"The goal is to make it easier for consumers to learn about and have access to federal lands as opposed to going to a bunch of different websites or calling a bunch of different numbers," says John McDonald, a spokesman for ReserveAmerica, a subsidiary of Ticketmaster and one of the companies bidding on the contract.
Under the contract, campers would be able to book reservations by phone or computer. Those who go online would find links to state tourism offices, federal parkland passes for sale and other recreation information.
Backcountry permits -- such as those required for the popular Mt. Whitney Trail -- are expected to be added to the reservation process over the next few years, government officials say.
Gail Vanderbie, deputy director of recreation for the Forest Service, says the contract will free up forest and park staff to concentrate on critical services such as trail maintenance and nature center education. "It allows us to devote our limited federal dollars to other kinds of services," she says.
The contract is part of a Bush administration initiative to expand what it calls "electronic government" -- sometimes through public-private partnerships -- that makes it easier for citizens and businesses to interact with federal agencies.
But Daniel McCool, director of the American West Center at the University of Utah, says he worries how effectively a profit-minded company will be regulated. Oversight is crucial, he says, for monitoring the price and the quality of the service, otherwise, "You wind up with a monopoly that in any other circumstance would be illegal."
One of the goals of the new contract, ReserveAmerica's McDonald says, is to create standard transaction fees.
But exactly what the contracted company may charge consumers -- either in the form of transaction fees or higher campground costs -- hasn't been decided. The fee structure, Vanderbie says, will be part of contract negotiations with the Department of Agriculture.
Campground costs and handling fees currently vary from agency to agency and even from site to site.
For example, campsites with electricity hookups cost more than those without. It costs $18 to reserve a campsite in Yosemite Valley, a percentage of which goes to Spherix, the company which handles reservations at the park, while at Arches National Park in Utah, ReserveAmerica charges $10 per night for a campsite and tacks on a $9 fee for each reservation.
In addition, it currently costs $10 to change or cancel a reservation and, if you change or cancel within three days of the reservation date, you forfeit the first night's fee.
The creation of the one-stop service, which will operate under a website called www.recreation.gov, was to have begun last August when ReserveAmerica, part of the online empire built by media mogul Barry Diller, received the contract estimated to be worth $128 million.
ReserveAmerica already provides booking services for some national parks and forests, as well as state parks in California, Florida, New York and Texas.
But the award fell apart after rival bidder Spherix filed a complaint arguing that the Department of Agriculture didn't properly consider Spherix's bid, which media reports say was $32.6 million lower than ReserveAmerica's offer.
In March, the Government Accountability Office sided with Spherix and recommended that the department reconsider the bids and reissue the contract.
Officials say that campers can continue to make online campground reservations at two current websites -- www.reserveamerica.com and reservations.nps.gov -- until the contract is awarded.
Regardless of which company wins the contract, each park or forest site will retain a number of unreserved campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis.