Ask James: Should I Risk Filming In A National Park Without A Permit?

Welcome to the next installment of my “Ask James” blog series, where readers send me questions relating to photography, business, family, work/life balance and all aspects of being a photographer in this day and age. The invitation for questions is open to anyone (ie: YOU). Just fill out the form on the Ask James page and submit your question! My challenge for you is to ask a really good question! Questions like, “What aperture should I use to photograph a flower” probably won’t make the cut. Go deeper, ask the questions that really need answering. Unless it’s inappropriate, chances are I’ll answer it and post it to this page.

The Question


The Answer

First off, I’ve decided to make the readers identity anonymous since there are possible legal implications if he/she goes through with what they’re asking. We all seem to have a way of legitimizing bad ideas in our heads. That’s why, before making a decision, it’s crucial to get those ideas out of our own minds and see how they sound to someone else. O, here’s how I interpreted your question:

“I want to make a film in Death Valley National Park (complete with actors, props, crew members, etc) but my budget isn’t big enough to include the commercial filming permit required by the National Parks Service. Since my budget doesn’t match my vision, do you think I could get away with just securing a workshop permit and, if stopped, use that to trick a park ranger?”

Say it ain’t so O! What really gets me here is that you read my article on Digital Photography School and are still wondering if it’s a good idea to go around the NPS rules 😉

The permit for leading workshops is called a Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) and yes, it runs around $200-$250 depending on the park. The permit for filming on location in a national park is called a Filming/Photography Permit. This is the same permit that a Hollywood film crew would have to obtain for a major motion picture, from what I understand. They are for two completely different purposes and I really don’t think you could pull off faking it. Here are a few reasons….

  • You’ll need to provide proof of liability insurance from your insurance company of (if I remember correctly) a minimum of $1,000,000.
  • You must provide proof that you, as a workshop instructor, are CPR/First Aid certified and disclose your game plan for what you’d do in an emergency situation.
  • You must provide a schedule of where you’ll be in the park on each day, what you’ll be doing and how many will be with you.
  • You must disclose the type of vehicle you’ll be driving.
  • At the end of the year, you’ll have to send in an earnings report showing how much you earned from the workshop(s) you held in the park.

I’m guessing you don’t have business liability insurance and I’m guessing you’re not CPR certified. So are you willing to get both of those things just to create a bogus permit? Even if the answer is yes, are you going to then give the park your vehicle info and where you’ll be so they can find you if needed? And if not, you’ll have to lie there too, which probably wouldn’t hold up to well in court. Then you’d also have to make up some numbers at the end of the year for the annual report. The lies begin to pile up, as you can see.

As you read in my article, the penalty for trying to skirt the NPS rules is severe. You’ll be immediately kicked out the park and issued a fine somewhere in the range of $2,000. Then you’ll have to face a federal judge at a later date. That means another trip to California on your dime (flights if you don’t live in the area, hotel, rental car, food, etc). That court hearing will determine whether or not you get an additional fine (up to $10,000 I believe) and a temporary or lifetime ban to the National Park. So what you really have to ask yourself is: “Is this worth the risk?” If your answer is yes, I think you’re making a huge mistake!

I think you’re only two options are to go without a permit and hope you don’t get caught or create your film somewhere else. The former is a terrible idea with serious penalties if caught. The latter may be a hard pill to swallow, but you don’t have a large budget and you’re trying to create a film on federal property. Let’s say you do create the film in the park and manage to fly under the radar and the film becomes a huge success and gets national and/or international attention. That is the goal, right? So what happens when someone from the NPS sees this film and notices that it was filmed in Death Valley? Don’t you think they may wonder if this low budget film maker got a permit? All it takes is a phone call to the permits office and a quick search through the computer to see if permits were secured. Another way to put it is like this: Even if you successfully create the film in the park, without a permit, you’ll probably always be nervous that the wrong person will see the film and you’ll get caught.

Don’t do it O. Take a step back and make a new plan. Cheers and good luck with the film!


  1. James,
    Lots of good info on being a workshop leader in a National Park. Regional parks in California also have permit requirements, but not as strict (usually just a $100/annual fee for a photographer, but more for film crews). It’s always a good ideal to work though the park’s office if you plan on doing an engagement/model or any type of commercial shoot in a park. Having the first aid/cpr cert is also handy. I always keep my wilderness first aid/ first responder certs current.

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