Representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, particularly those serving on the Superior National Forest, have been under fire in recent weeks as a result of the breakdown in the Boundary Waters reservations system.
In part, that’s just because they’re the easiest and most accessible targets. Forest Service folks rarely try to defend themselves, even in cases, like the current one, over which they had little control. Let’s be clear— no one on the Superior National Forest was involved in creating the online system that failed on Jan. 30. The coding that goes into the creation of such online systems might as well be ancient hieroglyphics to the vast majority of us, and that includes the folks who work on the Superior.
If we’re looking for a convenient target for the justifiable frustration of Boundary Waters users and cooperators, the Forest Service certainly fits the bill. Yet we wonder when those of us who rely on these online government systems will start to raise the more fundamental question about who is really behind some of the spectacular failures we’ve experienced in recent years at both the state and federal level.
From the hobbled roll-out of the MNsure online health insurance system to the disaster over the state’s online licensing program, known as MNLARS, to the latest reservations fiasco, we’ve seen that private contractors have frequently delivered systems that failed to do the job. In the case of MNLARS, a private contractor was paid $18 million over three years for work that the state ultimately had to scrap. Time and again, we the taxpayers have gotten burned.
While businesses that rely on a working Boundary Waters reservations system are justified in their displeasure, we should all keep in mind that the government workers who now must suffer the slings and arrows of that displeasure had no role in the selection of the private contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, or BAH, which clearly failed to do the job it was hired to do. BAH was supposed to maintain the federal recreational reservations system serving the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and other federal agencies that operate recreational sites around the country. BAH is a very well-connected company politically, owned mostly by the Carlyle Group, that makes its billions of dollars in annual revenue almost exclusively from federal government contracts, particularly in the national security and defense sectors.
Clearly, making sure the Boundary Waters reservations system worked when it went online on Jan. 30 was not a high priority for the company’s very well-paid executives, none of whom will ever have to listen to the frustrations of an area outfitter or resort owner whose 2019 season was suddenly cast into disarray.
Instead, it’s the local Forest Service folks, who earn a pittance compared to the BAH executives, who are the public face of the breakdown.
We know some folks are blaming the latest breakdown on the Forest Service’s controversial decision to add some motor-use permits to the online reservations system this year. Those permits had been subject to a lottery system before this year, and so were not reserved through the federal system, known as recreation.gov.
Yet, it’s not clear that there’s any connection between that change and the fiasco that occurred this year. The vast majority of Boundary Waters reservations, including some motor-use permits, have been handled through the online reservations system for years, without any major breakdowns.
We have argued for years for greater government accountability. But how about some accountability for the thousands of private businesses that provide services to the government? When they fail to do their job, it shouldn’t be government officials, alone, who take the heat.