A woman captures a breathtaking view of a lake from high up in the mountains using her mobile phone.

Bad News for YouTubers: You Could Be Fined For Filming In National Parks

If you love video and photography, there’s nothing better than capturing the cascading rush of water at Yosemite Falls or the vastness of the Grand Canyon. From the bursting geysers at Yellowstone to the rocky cliffs of Acadia, there’s ample beauty to be documented in the National Parks.

However, many don’t realize that capturing that beauty is often off-limits. Let’s examine what YouTubers must do to shoot commercial footage in National Parks.

A woman captures a breathtaking view of a lake from high up in the mountains using her mobile phone.

What Is a National Park? 

A National Park is an area of land for public use. The federal government designates National Park sites and other significant places like National Monuments, National Historic Sites, and National Scenic Trails.

Usually, National Parks will have grander acreage and variety than other designated units. They tend to have geological and natural features worth protecting and are of historical, cultural, or scientific significance.

Can You Shoot Video in National Parks?

When the movement to protect these scenic places in the 1800s began, painters and photographers were essential to the campaign’s success. John Muir and Stephen Mather invited renowned artists to visit locations they deemed worth conserving and capture the beauty in art.

They sent the paintings and photographs to magazines, newspapers, and Congress to advertise the wonder of locations like Zion and Glacier. The role of each artist was crucial in establishing the National Parks we have today.

However, with modern technology, rules and regulations have changed. You are welcome to take a selfie while scuba diving at Dry Tortugas National Park or hiking to Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. But if you’re looking to do anything more than snap photos and take videos for personal use and memories, there may be more rules.

Today, the only way to shoot and post a video in a National Park is without monetary gain. You can’t post to YouTube or Instagram. You can only post to your personal website, free of commercials or advertisements.

Why Were YouTubers Fined for Filming in National Parks? 

The government fined filmmaker Gordon Price for failing to obtain a film permit from the National Parks Service. He filmed some scenes in “Crawford Road” in Yorktown Battlefield in the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia.

Although the National Park Service dropped the case, Price sued to overturn the statute as a violation of his First Amendment rights. Price won his suit as a district court ruled in his favor and overturned the law.

Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia
Colonial National Historical Park

However, in late August 2022, a three-judge panel overturned that ruling. Even though a National Park is a public forum, the law regards filmmaking differently because the filmmaker is not communicating with people at the National Park. This viewpoint is highly debatable, however, and multiple appeals are ongoing to protect the rights of videographers visiting the National Parks.

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What Is the Court Ruling that Is Being Overturned for Filming in National Parks? 

When Price released his documentary about the history behind Crawford Road in Yorktown, Virginia, the National Park Service cited him with a misdemeanor and fined him. Previously, any filmmaking for monetary gain required a permit from the National Park.

But when Price sued for violating his First Amendment rights, he introduced this old law to new eyes. The judge ruled it unconstitutional in its restriction of free speech. Price won.

This is the court ruling that a judge recently overturned. The National Park Service is sticking to its interim guidance after the Price vs. Barr ruling. However, if this overturned ruling holds up against all opposition, expect the National Park Service to issue another regulation about filming.

Do YouTubers Need Film Permits?

In response to the Price vs. Barr ruling in 2021, the National Park Service issued interim guidance to manage filming activities. “Under the interim guidance, filming activities may require a permit if they would impact park resources or the visitor experience.”

The guidance explains that filmmakers who wish to record should contact the National Park to discuss how to film without interrupting visitors or harming park resources.

Currently, there is no distinction between commercial and non-commercial filming. However, there is a distinction between low-impact and non-low-impact filming.

A couple uses a gimbal to film video of themselves as they hike through nature.

Low-impact filmers do not need to contact the park ahead of time or obtain a permit. According to officials, this applies to “outdoor filming activities in areas open to the public, except areas managed as wilderness, involving five people or less and equipment that will be carried at all times, except for small tripods used to hold cameras.”

Filmmakers involved in non-low-impact videography must submit their plan in writing at least ten days before arriving. The park superintendent will decide if they need a permit to protect the park’s natural resources or avoid conflict with visitors.

Filming in wilderness areas, however, follows different procedures. Unless you’re a visitor filming casually, you’ll need a special permit to film in any wilderness location. 

How Do You Obtain a Permit to Film in National Parks? 

Applying for a permit is straightforward. Each National Park’s administrative office will have applications, or filmmakers can find them online. If you need to complete an application, finalize it as far in advance as possible.

You’ll need to submit a fee with the application to the park where you want to film. If your activity is more complicated or unusual, you should request a meeting with park staff.

How Much Can You Be Fined for Filming Without a Permit in National Parks?

Vanlifers Kara and Nate discuss the hefty fine they received for filming in a National Park.

Since the Prive vs. Barr ruling, the National Park Service hasn’t collected application or location fees for filming activities. It’s unknown how much the courts fined Gordon Price, but popular YouTubers and van lifers Kara and Nate were fined $1,000 for their filmmaking.

In addition, the service banned them from filming in National Parks ever again without a commercial permit.

Is It Worth Getting a Permit to Film in National Parks?

If you’re making thousands of dollars filming, paying $250 for a permit isn’t a big deal. But if you’re making $8 on a YouTube video and it costs you $25 for a permit, it doesn’t seem worth it. So it comes down to the profit gain.

Many YouTubers aren’t making much money off of their videos. Often, they film to share their adventures with others or give tips about visiting National Parks.

Overlooking a lake in front of the Grand Teton Range.

Professional vloggers and producers of documentaries will keep making the big bucks and paying for permits. But the regular Joe YouTubers will have to cease unless the courts address this overturned ruling in their favor. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. 

What’s your opinion on this controversy? Should anyone be able to film in National Parks and profit without obtaining a permit?

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