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Things to Know When Filming in US National Parks

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Our National Parks can offer filmmakers a lifetime’s worth of beautiful footage — from mountain peaks, to waterfalls, to ocean waves and desert-scapes. But, officially shooting in a national park isn’t as simple as showing up with a camera. You’ll need to do a bit of research, apply for a permit and get in touch with the proper authorities. The process can be quite daunting at first, though we’ve compiled this article to help break it down for you to ensure.

How do I film in a state park?

The first thing to note about filming in state parks is that there are an incredible amount of them. They range in size from ginormous mountain ranges to small quaint monuments. When choosing your location, this is the first thing to keep in mind as the size of the park will greatly affect your ability to film there, the resources you’ll have access to will vary and the environment for your shoot can change drastically. Visiting United States National Park Service website is a great place to browse all the National Parks in a convenient, leisurely fashion.

For the sake of hypotheticals, we’ve decided to film in one of the most beautiful and inspiring places on the planet: Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Pulling up the Grand Canyon’s page on NPS.Gov allows us to see all sorts of information pertaining to the park. From this page, we can check park alerts, event calendars, regulations, maps and even view live webcams of specific locations.

The NPS website also shows information specifically regarding the process of filming in each state park. Overall, the process is similar for each park, though there are small differences within the procedure. There is quite a bit of information to take in, so we recommend writing it down for safe keeping.

 

Where can I find this information?

Searching the park homepage has brought us to their commercial filming and photography page. This can be found by navigating the drop down menu under “Get Involved,” “Do Business With Us,” and finally to “Film/Photo Permits.” Each Park’s homepage is a bit different, as each park follows a different set of rules. However, generally they follow the same structure.

filming-in-national-parks

 

What do I need a permit for?

National Parks require permits in order for commercial use photography or film. This means any image, film or sound sample that might be monetized in a larger product. The following instances also require a permit:

 

  • Permits are required for photographers or filmmakers seeking a specific kind of plant or animal native to the park.
  • Groups of people looking to shoot at specific locations barred off from the general public, after/before hours or to film openly in public areas.

Newscasters and recreational park goers DO NOT require a permit to film about or of any kind of larger public event including astronomical wonders like an eclipse.

HOWEVER, the park will require a permit if this takes place outside of normal operating hours with no event present.

 

Important Changes to Commercial Filming Permits on Park Land

On January 22, 2021, the US District Court for the District of Columbia issued a decision in Price v. Barr determining the permit and fee requirements applying to commercial filming under 54 USC 100905, 43 CFR Part 5, and 36 CRF Part 5 are unconstitutional. The National Park Service is currently determining how this decision will be implemented. This means that the permit and license requirements for commercial filming are subject to change across all national parks, and could potentially disappear within the coming years.
Because of this, On 2/3/2021, The Grand Canyon National Park has temporarily suspended all new commercial filming requests until further notice. They are currently accepting and processing new still photography permits.

Currently, the National Park Service is not issuing commercial filming permits, but is in the process of evaluating how best to regulate filming activities that affect visitors and park resources. All applicable laws and regulations governing activities and public use in parks still apply, including park hours and areas open and closed to the public. Video production companies, filmmakers, producers, directors, and other staff associated with commercial filming are reminded that rules and regulations that apply to all park visitors still apply to filming activities even if no permit is needed for their activity. Check with the park staff for more information on closures, sensitive resources, and other safety tips.

For comparison, Death Valley National Park in California states the same alert, as does Glenn Canyon National Park in Arizona/Utah. However, all parks recommend reaching out to the local park’s management for specific inquiries.

For amateur, tourist and casual visitors looking to engage in film practices, there is no official permit needed at this time, and Price v. Barr does not affect that. However, the park asks that videographers respect the privacy of their fellow park visitors, and understand that they are subject to the same rules and regulations as a visitor and do not have special permission that the permit grants.

What about Still Photography?

Price v. Barr also had no impact on how the National Park Service regulates still photography, so there are no changes. Still photographers require a permit only when:

  • The photoshoot takes place at location(s) where or when members of the public are generally not allowed
  • The photoshoot uses model(s), sets(s), or prop(s) that are not a part of the location’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities
  • A park would incur additional administrative costs to monitor any activity.

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What fees will I have to pay?

Grand Canyon National Park will collect a cost recovery charge and a location fee for still photography permits. Cost recovery includes an application fee and any additional charges to cover the costs incurred by the National Park Service in processing your request and monitoring your permit. This amount will vary depending on the park and the size and complexity of your permit. The application fee must be submitted with your application. Each park features its own local fee that differs from one another.

In addition to local fees, the National Park Service has been directed by Congress to collect a fee to provide a fair return to the United States for the use of park lands. The National Park Service uses the following fee schedule:

  • 1–10 people – $50/day
  • 11–30 people – $150/day
  • Over 30 people – $250/day

 

Are there other permit requirements?

You may be required to obtain liability insurance naming the United States as additionally insured in an amount commensurate with the risk posed to park resources by your proposed activity. You may also be asked to post a bond to ensure the payment of all charges and fees and the restoration of the area if necessary.

COVID-19 Precautions?

Currently, most National Parks are operating on a normal schedule and do not have altered hours due to COVID-19. However, visitors are advised to wear masks in populated areas, and refrain from filming in large groups. Some parks require a negative COVID test as proof, while others make no mention of it. Densely populated indoor attractions featured at some parks (such as visitor or history centers) are subjected to shorter hours, a population limit or are closed for the time being.

How do I apply?

The filming guidelines can be found here on NPS.gov. We recommend looking this over before contacting the park filming coordinator. The process requires a bit of preparation and prior knowledge such as dates, times and locations, so it’s also highly encouraged to have these ready beforehand. Applicants can expect to turn in the following requirements:

  • A complete application packet submitted a minimum of 4 weeks prior to the requested date
  • The required, non-refundable application fee of $100 must be submitted with the application packet
  • More complex requests must be submitted a minimum of 6 weeks prior to the requested date
  • Priority will not be given to urgent requests

The application packet must also include:

  • Certificate of General Liability insurance issued by an insurance company operating in the United States
  • Detailed production schedule and proposed locations
  • Detailed cast & crew list including name and role
  • Detailed equipment list including model of equipment

Take a look at the kinds of applications:

Long Filming and Photography Permit Application
Short Filming and Photography Permit Application

What if this doesn’t work for me?

The NPS recognizes that this process is tedious and might not be possible for all patrons looking to film in their parks. There are additional resources available to assist in the process or offer alternative solutions to filming in a National Park.

grand-canyon-national-park

There are numerous things to take into consideration when filming in National Parks around the United States. This guide will be able to get you started on the right track. Which National Park would you most like to film in? Add your answers to the comment section below.

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Article by Joe Forte, owner and producer at D-Mak Productions, a Scottsdale video production company specializing in producing corporate, commercial, digital and branded media content.

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