As a nature and wildlife filmmaker, Yellowstone was one of my favorite locations in the United States to film nature and wildlife.

Every year, millions of tourists, photographers and filmmakers travel to America’s first national park to gaze in wonder at the incredible sights, sounds and smells Yellowstone has to offer.

But did you know that many filmmakers could be breaking the law every time they hit the record button on their video camera?

The problem all started when congress decided that filmmakers like Steven Spielberg shouldn’t be allowed to film movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind in our national parks and monuments without paying for a film permit.

The reasoning was that a large film crew can cause a lot of disruption and require a lot of oversight by park personal which costs the taxpayers money.

The original law was never intended to include filmmakers like you and I but somehow we were lumped into one group labeled filmmaker.

The law was later amended to allow small film crews of five or less to not be required to pay location fees. You still had to jump through all the other hoops but at least that lowered the amount you had to pay a little.

Bill H.R.2031 was introduced in hopes of creating a single permit for all public lands at the cost of $200 a year for wildlife and nature filmmakers with five or less crew.
This bill never made it through.

So You Think You Don’t Need a Film Permit?

If you’re shooting video for anything other than your own personal enjoyment, you need a permit.

Selling footage though a micro-stock site to make beer money every week? You need a permit.
Creating a documentary on Yellowstone National Park to sell on your website? You need a permit.
Shooting footage to promote your website? You need a permit.

Don’t believe me? Call Yellowstone and ask for yourself.

This only applies to filmmakers. Still photographers saw the writing on the wall long ago and lobbied to be exempt from the law.

But now I hear that even still photographers with microphones mounted on the HDSLR’s are being hassled for permits.

How Do I Know You Need a Permit to Film Nature and Wildlife in on our National Parks?

I know because I have first hand knowledge about the need for a permit.

I had signed up to go on a winter photography tour of Yellowstone National Park a couple of years ago. The group consisted of professional photographers as well as serious amateurs.
I had read something about permits needed to shoot video so I thought I would inquire about the need for one.

I was told that any video shot for ANYTHING other than personal use such as vacation video required a permit.

At the time their was a $200 application fee for the permit. I also had to take out a million dollar liability policy naming the National Park Service as an additional insured.
Ok, no problem I thought.

When the paperwork was returned to me, I was in for quite the shock.

In order for the permit to be issued I would also have to provide an itinerary for each day. I’m not quite sure how I would know where I would be and when since so many factors like weather and animals seen along the way would dictate our progress.

But here was the real kick in the teeth. I would have to pay $65 AN HOUR for a ranger to accompany me at all times to make sure I was following all laws and that my tripod was considered a “tripping hazard”. Even though it was similar to the tripods that all the photographers were using, mine was somehow a tripping hazard.

So adding up the fees, it would cost me over $4000 just in fees to have a ranger follow me around all day. In the end I had to cancel my trip and lost a good sum of money that I had already paid in deposit fees to the tour company.

I’ve never been back to Yellowstone.

I’ve had filmmakers tell me, they pay taxes so the parks and monuments belong to them and no one is going to stop them from filming. Well, that’s awesome as long as you don’t get caught.

I had still photographer relate a story they had had with a park ranger on permits.
They had asked if they were shooting still photographs with their HDSLR would they need a permit if they wanted to sell them to magazines, calendar companies, etc. They said no, no permit was needed.

They then asked if they flipped the switch and started shooting video would a permit be needed? The rangers said that yes, they would then be required to have a permit to shoot video.

So what to do?

A Petition to Amend P.L. 106-206

Public Law 106-206 is the law that requires filmmakers to have permits when filming on public lands.

There is currently a petition to encourage Senator Mile Lee to introduce legislation to exempt small crews of filmmakers from being required to have permits and operate under the same rules as still photographers.
Click Allow Professional Videography on Public Lands
, sign the petition and make a difference.

I’d Love to Hear Your Thoughts

I’d love to know how you feel about the requirement for nature and wildlife filmmakers needed a permit to shoot side by side with commercial still photographers.
Also, please share this post, tweet it to your followers to get the word out that this law needs to be changed.
And as always, shoot the ordinary and make it extraordinary!

Kevin J Railsback is a wildlife and nature filmmaker