Are You Filming Illegally in our National Parks?

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


About the Author:

Award-winning filmmaker Kevin J Railsback has traveled as far as Africa to test HD cameras for Panasonic. His stunning nature and wildlife footage has appeared in productions on National Geographic, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel as well as in commercials for such corporate giants as AT&T.


  1. Gerrylynns February 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm - Reply

    “….there you go again…” the government getting involved in more stuff taking away our freedoms!  Of course, I think it should be free no matter what camera is used….except for huge movie companies with massive amounts of equipment and people trampling all over the place.  Gerry

    • Kevin J Railsback February 17, 2012 at 5:35 am - Reply

      The tour I was going to go on had a photographer with several Nat Geo covers to their credit. They could shoot all they wanted for free yet, I had to have a permit. Doesn’t make any sense to me.

  2. Liz Ness February 16, 2012 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Boy am I glad I read this.  You know I’m planning a trip to Yellowstone this summer and fully planned to video it and share it on my site. I had no idea that I could get into trouble for that. Guess I’ll stick with stills when I’m in the park.  WOW!

    • Kevin J Railsback February 17, 2012 at 5:42 am - Reply

      There are plenty of filmmakers that film in Yellowstone Liz. Most never get hassled.

      My mistake was that I called to make sure I was doing everything right.

      I know a lot of filmmakers that film in Yellowstone and other parks under the reasoning that it’s their park since it was their taxes that are at work on all public lands.

      It’s kind of like the speed limit. Legally you can’t go over it, but pretty much everyone does. 🙂

  3. BezOcean February 24, 2012 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Quite a thing! Hope to work on such projects in the future!

  4. Daryl L. Hunter April 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    Good luck to Mike Lee, this needs to be overturned

  5. Larry Prince December 8, 2012 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    It’s interesting…that the Government thinks we are all no ninnys.
    Most professional type…photographers are fairly careful…how they’
    treat the landscape…..otherwise why would we be there to photograph it. I’m 73….and every fall I go and spend about a month
    in Yellowstone and surrounding areas photographing stills. However,
    now I’ve picked up a video camera and want to try my hand at filmmaking, mostly about wildlife. The government basically wants to
    throw a fence around everything….and just have the people observe
    from the outside, when most of them wouln’t know a bird from a flower. It is the experience that sheds the best light on man.

    • Kevin J Railsback December 8, 2012 at 10:27 pm - Reply

      The problem started because congress was upset that films like CLose Encounters of the Third Kind filmed at Devil’s Tower, required a lot of park resources but the park never got a penny.
      So a law was created so at least the park would get paid back for the resources used etc.
      Well of course, the park service saw that as ALL filmmakers regardless of the intent of their film or scope of the park resources used.
      Photography groups like NANPA lobbied to be excluded from the new laws so that’s why you can make all the money you want off of photography in the parks but can’t flip the switch on the same DSLR camera and shoot video.

      You would think that the park would be happy that so many people are filming and promoting the parks. But truth be told, they would be even more happier if people didn’t visit the parks at all. So anything they can do to discourage visitors, they will do. I know a guy that they even contacted because they saw his video from Yellowstone on his website and threatened him that he better have a permit next time etc. Well who can afford to pay $65 an hour for a ranger to follow you while you stand right next to a photographer with the same exact tripod yet you need an escort because your tripod is a tripping hazard.

      It’s crazy but it’s allowed me to really focus on the nature and wildlife right here at home and to tell you the truth, I enjoy it so much more. Sure we don’t have grizzly bears and wolves, but we also don’t have crowds and park personnel hassling me all the time either.

      I filmed at a tallgrass prairie near my home the entire Summer and I can count the number of people I met there on the prairie on one hand.

  6. gibbygoo April 22, 2015 at 8:17 pm - Reply

    To answer the original question in the headline, “Are You Filming Illegally in our National Parks?”


    And if I get “caught” out in the field, my plan is to keep shooting. As should everyone. The line between still and video capture is blurring for MEDIA PROFESSIONALS. What credibility does a freaking zoology major have in deciding what button I’m pushing, and for what purpose? It is certifiably insane. If I produce a cool image SEQUENCE with my camera, I should be able to sell it just as I would a single image FRAME, especially if I’m on public land (which, ironically, I had to pay to set foot upon).

    Whether it’s a pic or a clip is none of the government’s damn business. Who would argue against that?

    • Kevin J Railsback April 22, 2015 at 11:06 pm - Reply

      It’s hard for me to understand how the flip[ of a switch to go from shooting a still image to a video image suddenly needs a ranger escort at $65 an hour in the Yellowstone thermal areas.
      If you’re shooing stills you need no escort and have to pay no fees, but if you flip the switch to video, suddenly your tripod is a tripping hazard and you need to have a paid escort.

      Have you heard this exchange before? What do you think of it?

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