Video bloggers involved in some commercial ventures now able to film in national parks without prior approval


POWELL – A federal judge recently found the permit and fee requirements for filming video on National Park Service properties are unconstitutional. 

As a result, the service is no longer collecting application or location fees, or costs associated with commercial filming until further notice. 

In the decision, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of Washington, D.C., agreed with independent filmmaker Gordon Price that the regulations violated Price’s free speech rights. 

While commercial enterprises still need to fill out an application if they’re location filming or requiring a large staff — such as firms making a movie or feature-length film — the ruling is big news for those hoping to do “low-impact filming” destined to be shared on social media apps like Facebook and YouTube. 

“Previously, all commercial filming in parks required a permit,” said Cynthia Hernandez, public affairs specialist at NPS headquarters in Washington. There was a time when even still photographers wishing to do senior portraits in Park Service properties would need a permit. New rules relax the process. 

YouTube and similar social media sites are booming, and some folks are getting rich.

Viewers watch over a billion hours of videos on the platform every single day. More than 2 billion users — equivalent to nearly one third of all internet users — log in each month, according to recent YouTube statistics. 

The ability to stream videos straight onto a television has sent viewership skyrocketing.

No matter what you want to see, you’re more than likely to find it online. Want to watch a person eat 32 Big Macs in a half hour? More than 4.7 million viewers tuned in to watch Joey Chestnut break the record on YouTube last year. 

Want to watch the famous Baby Shark Dance video? It’s been viewed 8.6 billion times. No, that’s not a typo. 

How do people make money on YouTube? YouTube’s main source of revenue is advertising, though it makes additional money from subscription services, generally splitting revenue with creators. When properly credentialed, the average earnings for those who post a video is between $3 and $5 per thousand views. 

Chestnut probably made more than $14,000 to stuff his face full of almost three dozen two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun while on camera. 

The revenue stream is resulting in an explosion of “channels” done by average folks with the help of digital cameras and video-capable cellphones. Many simply have one or two GoPro or similar cameras capable of doing videos anywhere people or drones can legally go — legally being a key word. 

“Videographers, filmers, 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,” Hernandez said in an email last week. 

Other agencies governing public land — including the National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation — have similar rules. 

“We are generally amenable to public use of our surface when that use does not adversely impact our primary mission and purpose,” said Jay Dallman, natural resources specialist and spokesman for the bureau in Wyoming. “We don’t have regulations in place for that sort of activity,” he added during a recent phone interview. “If someone approached us saying they intended to shoot a video for profit, we would inform them about our permitting process. However, individuals hiking across our surface and taking photos or videos is generally considered casual public use and not subject to a permit.” 

Dallman added that there are very few requests to film on Bureau of Reclamation property. 

If there were feature-length movies filming on federal public lands, the industry is generally aware of location regulations. 

But YouTube video producers have a reputation for apologizing for breaking regulations later rather than asking permission prior to uploading their work. Some have also disregarded all rules in attempts to make exciting content for their channels. 

In May 2016, five filmmakers with a brand called High on Life traipsed through off-limits areas of Grand Prismatic Spring and posted the footage to YouTube. 

Public outrage and criminal charges followed. The group members were temporarily banned from the park, placed on probation and ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fines for entering a thermal area and disorderly conduct. 

Before the recent decision, the NPS has prosecuted videographers posting for-profit videos to YouTube. 

Kara and Nate Buchanan found it out the hard way after posting how much money they made from videos made in two NPS properties in Colorado. 

The Buchanans have 2.3 million subscribers, who follow the newlyweds on their globe-trotting trips to more than 100 countries. They made a video titled “Why We Don’t Visit National Parks” after the incident. 

More than 1 million viewers watched it, likely netting the Buchanans somewhere between $3,000 to $5,000 in ad revenue. After the judge overturned the Park Service’s permitting rules, the couple published a 22-minute video called, “We were fined $1,000 for filming in national parks, then everything changed.” 

The video shows the Buchanans immediately heading for Yellowstone. 

“We didn’t realize we needed a permit to make videos for our YouTube channel,” Nate explained. 

Though the Buchanans make a living off the revenue from their channel, they use consumer-quality equipment — like cellphone cameras. But Nate said the permit process was the same one a major motion picture would be required to do. The cost to apply for a permit was $300 and there were expensive daily fees while filming. The Buchanans would have also been required to provide an “exact” itinerary in advance and then wait weeks for final approval. 

“We felt with all the restrictions, we wouldn’t be able to film the type of content we wanted,” he said. 

In celebration of the district court’s decision, the couple danced and twerked on camera at Mammoth Hot Springs. More than a million viewers have watched the video, resulting in the couple banking more cash. 

There are still rules for making videos in national parks. 

Major mistakes include using a drone in the parks (they remain banned), getting too close to or harassing wildlife and treading on delicate geographic features off boardwalks and paths. 

The use of drones is legal on other public property, but using them to chase wildlife is illegal. 

The NPS will be studying the decision and looking to update rules for videographers sometime in the future. 

Until then, prepare for an avalanche of videos from the nation’s public lands and, potentially, more news of scofflaws testing the limits of authority. The rules aren’t just in place to protect natural resources, but also to protect visitors. 

In 2019, Vishnu and Meenakshi Moorthy, two software engineers and travel bloggers from India, were killed in an 800-foot fall at Yosemite National Park while taking a photo for their favorite social media site. They weren’t the first to be injured while filming a stunt for social media — and doubtfully will be the last.

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