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Troubling Ruling on Filming Permits in National Parks

By September 13, 2022No Comments
Valley View, Yosemite National Park, California © Frank Gallagher

Valley View, Yosemite National Park, California, © Frank Gallagher

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Marketing, Communications & Blog Coordinator

For the ever increasing number of nature photographers who are also using video, a recent appeals court ruling is concerning. A three-judge panel overturned a lower court ruling and reinstated a requirement for permits and fees when filming in National Parks.

Price v. Barr

Filmmaker Gordon Price had sued, claiming that the permit and fee requirements violated his First Amendment rights of free speech. NANPA helped write and signed on to an Amicus Brief submitted by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). Last year, a lower court concurred and overturned the Park Service rules, as described in an article by Sean Fitzgerald of NANPA’s Advocacy Committee.

In the ruling last month, two of the three appeals court judges decided that some parts of national parks might be considered public forums but, because filmmakers don’t try to communicate with others at those sites and at those times, they’re not using the locations as forums and, therefore, the First Amendment doesn’t apply. The third judge wrote a stinging dissent.

The ruling doesn’t affect photography or journalism but more and more nature photographers have been incorporating video in their work and it could soon affect them. Maybe you shoot video of your workshops and use that in advertising your trips, maybe you have a YouTube channel with videos of your life as a photographer, maybe you shoot video for tutorials you sell online, these could all fall under the cloud of this ruling.

The National Park Service says it is still operating under interim guidance developed after the lower court overturned the permit and fees requirement and the case is sure to be appealed so, for the moment, filmmakers are in the clear.

A Park Service website has a good summary of what that interim guidance is, stating “[U]nder the interim guidance, the National Park Service is not distinguishing between types of filming, such as commercial, non-commercial, or news gathering. Low-impact filming activities will not require a special use permit, but non-low-impact filming activities may require a permit to address their potential impacts on park resources and visitor activities.” It then goes on to define both low-impact and non-low-impact filming activities. Most of what nature photographers do would fall under low-impact activities, but check the definitions to be sure that includes what you have in mind.

Still, for a host of reasons, the appeals court ruling is troubling. We’ll keep you posted.

Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He serves as NANPA’s Interim Marketing and Communications Coordinator and manages NANPA’s blog. He can be found online at frankgallagherphotography.com or on Instagram @frankgallagherfoto.