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FOX 13 Investigates: Here’s who makes money when you book camping at a Utah state park

Posted at 5:51 PM, Sep 01, 2023

ANTELOPE ISLAND, Utah — Patrick Robers and Jamie Ferrell are traveling the American West.

Robers, from Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, and Ferrell, of Florence, Alabama, both recently booked campsites at Utah’s Antelope Island State Park. And neither like paying extra fees.

“The money should stay within the state,” Robers said as he sat outside his travel trailer.

“Because all of your reservation fees, they don't go to the parks,” Ferrell said in a separate interview along the shore of the Great Salt Lake.

READ: Utahns may not win national park permits, but company still makes money

In Utah, $5.75 of every state park camping reservation goes to Dallas-based software company Aspira, also known by the website it operates, Reserve America. It adds to Utah state park campers paying about $625,000 a year to Aspira, said Scott Strong, the deputy director of the Utah Division of State Parks.

Strong said the Utah state parks reservation system used to be confined to people answering phones. When state parks started an online system about 15 years ago, Strong said, it needed a vendor.

“At that time, nobody was doing this,” Strong said. “So, we didn't have any other opportunities to do it in-house. We had to go outside and contract to do it at that time.”

Other states took the same trail.

FOX 13 asked for contracts at state park systems in surrounding states. For Idaho state parks, Aspira receives $9 per reservation.

In New Mexico, it’s only $4.

It’s $4 in Wyoming, too, if you live there. Otherwise, Aspira collects $8 per reservation.

Strong says it all seems to be a matter of what kind of deal the states can cut.

“We negotiated, renegotiated the contract about three years ago,” Strong said. “And prior to that, we were paying $8 a transaction.”

Aspira representatives did not respond to FOX 13 requests for an interview. In Utah, the $5.75 to Aspira is on top of the standard camping fees, which range from $20 to $180 a night at Antelope Island State Park.

In Utah, Aspira only collects money from state park campers who book online; not from visitors buying other types of passes and not from campers who show up at the park gate with no reservation and find a campsite.

Strong said the parks in the Beehive State have a program with Utah Tech University to operate an online system for people buying day passes. That system, called Parks Pass, keeps 50 cents of every transaction to finance the program.

But the program is also financed with $2.25 from every online camping reservation. That means Aspira isn’t the only one collecting extra money from campers booking online.

Strong said Utah plans to expand Parks Pass to people wanting to buy marina passes and permits for special events like Antelope Island’s bison roundup. The contract with Aspira runs into 2030. Strong said it’s not practical to consider moving camping reservations onto Parks Pass until then.

“If we could actually build a system in-house, that would be a great direction to go in,” Strong said.

Meanwhile, Robers and Ferrell don’t like a private company making money from state parks.

The parks “should be upfront with it and pass it on to the camper right up front,” Robers said.

“It's basically our land,” Ferrell said, “and they're charging us the fee to do a reservation.”

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