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Hey YouTubers, Filming in National Parks is Ruled Illegal

Videographers just lost a big win from 2021, which granted free filming in national parks on a small scale. 

For decades, filming anything in the parks for commercial use or profit required a fee and permit. But one indie filmmaker bucked the system and said Hey! That’s unconstitutional!

For a few months, anyone shooting in parks was free to do what they wanted unless it was a big Hollywood-type production. But now, anyone filming could face fines or even jail time.

Many of us are solo or duo vloggers. So, why should we care? Does this ruling really pertain to us?

Let’s find out!!

Rules Reversal for Filming in National Parks

The Federal government, by law, charges fees and requires a permit to film on public land for commercial purposes. By commercial, we mean any project which intends to or might make money. 

Even if your project is for PBS, a nonprofit, you’d still need a permit and to pay a fee for simply inconveniencing the public, aka taxpayers, on public lands. You’re in the way near a street, and in the parks, you may be disrupting the land.

Where things get tricky is for solo travelers, vloggers, and YouTubers. This law was written before YouTube existed. Now, anyone with a phone can make content for profit. Even if you shoot a video in a park and put it on YouTube for free, the platform alone can make money from you. Suddenly, you need a permit and need to pay a fine.

Shooting content for YouTube and the laws that swarm around it has been a grey area ever since YouTube’s inception. It’s confusing, for sure. Needing a permit to shoot your vlog diary in a park seems odd.

Independent filmmaker Gordy Price sued the National Parks Service (NPS) and the US attorney general after receiving a fine. He won the case in 2021. He argued the Federal and State laws governing content with free speech were unconstitutional. And he won! 

Due to the lawsuit, the national parks changed their laws. Filming in parks for free is allowed with gear limited to one tripod and to what fits in your backpack. For now.

But here’s the rub: this new ruling is only an interim law. The parks appealed the verdict. And on August 23rd, 2022, the NPS won their appeal, which means we are back to needing a permit and paying fees to film anything for profit in a national park.

Tell Me More About Gordy Price and His Lawsuit

Gordy Price is an independent filmmaker with dozens of film credits under his belt. He’s an ultra-low-budget director, and Crawford Road is no exception. This 2018 docu-style film explores the long true history behind this road in Yorktown, Virginia. 

Although Price shot everything himself with the aid of one producer, his re-enactments involved several actors working within national park grounds.

When the NPS found his film after its first screening, they cited him with a misdemeanor and fined him. They eventually dropped the charges, but Price swung back with a lawsuit. Backed by two First Amendment lawyers, Price sued and won. They found the government’s permitting scheme unreasonable and unconstitutional in its restriction of free speech.

But everything changed when the national parks appealed their case, now under the jurisdiction of new judges. Judge Douglas Ginsburg approved the appeal, stating the parks’ permit rules are reasonable. His ruling states that the act of filming is not protected under the first amendment.

Not only that, But Ginsburg’s ruling states that anyone holding a phone outside a visitor center to record commentary must obtain a permit and pay a fee. In addition, you must obtain a permit before filming a protest on the Washington National Mall if you plan to post it on social media. 

To top it off, Ginsburg’s verdict states that anyone spontaneously filming will be criminally liable and face up to six months in prison! How this will affect protests and people documenting crimes or abuses is a whole other matter. 

According to this ruling, the only way to shoot and post videos for free is to host them on your personal website, with no commercials or other forms of monetary gain.

Do I Need a Permit for Filming in National Parks?

The silver lining, for now, is that the interim guidance for filming stands until further notice. What is the interim guidance? They’re the rules made after Price won his appeal in 2021. With the reversal of this ruling, it’s only a matter of time before the following guidelines change again.

As of September 2022, The National Park Service does not distinguish between types of filming; in other words, whether you’re filming a drama, broadcasting news, or shooting your birthday party doesn’t matter. What matters is the size of your gear and crew.

Low-impact filming means you have five or fewer people with you. You must carry all equipment on your back at all times. This means no dollies, wheel barrels, or anything except one tripod in hand. All regular park restrictions apply, and the park encourages you to contact your chosen park before shooting anything.

Non-low-impact filming means anything that does not fit the above description. You’re no longer low impact if you add one light stand or standing green screen to your kit. All non-low impact activities require at least ten-day advance notice to the park. The permit and fee will be determined once you disclose your intent and all info to the park superintendent.

How Do I Obtain a Permit for Filming in a National Park?

You can obtain a permit for filming in a national park through each park’s website or administrative office. Your first step is to go to Find A Park at Let’s use Bighorn Canyon in Montana, for example.

Your next step is to click on Plan Your Visit. Navigate to Basic Information, then Permits and Reservations. Scroll down to Commerical Filming and Photography Permits and fill out the application. In this example, Big Horn requires at least 30 days’ notice.

We strongly encourage you to call the visitor center first to understand your chosen park’s policies and governance. Make nice with the locals. 

Fees for filming and vlogging in parks vary. The basic charge will include a recovery cost for processing your request, park disruption, and monitoring your work. Still photography can cost anywhere from $50 per day for up to ten people and $250 per day for crews over 30.

How Will RVers Create Their Vlogs in the Future?

Filming your vlog in a national park, even with your phone, may soon require a permit. Writing this sentence was difficult for us, as this seems over the top. But this rule reversal on filming in parks technically appears to make it so. The RV community and all content creators certainly have much to think about.

Please share your thoughts in the comments and let us know if you find any petitions or ways our community can help appeal to reverse the reversal!

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