Commercial Filming and Photography on Federal Lands

Updated March 4, 2021
Commercial Filming and Photography on Federal Lands
Commercial filmmakers, videographers, and photographers
Agency Regulations
often seek to use federal lands as locations for their works.
Department of the Interior. In August 2013, DOI issued a
Historically, the major federal land management agencies—
final rule to bring three agencies—BLM, NPS, and FWS—
the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park
into compliance with P.L. 106-206 (78 Federal Register
Service (NPS), and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the
52087, modifying regulations at 36 C.F.R. Part 5, 43 C.F.R.
Department of the Interior (DOI) and the U.S. Forest
Part 5, and 50 C.F.R. Part 27, respectively). In subsequent
Service (FS) in the Department of Agriculture (USDA)—
years—most recently in January 2018 (83 Federal Register
did not share a consistent approach to regulating
1664)—the Bureau of Reclamation announced its intent to
commercial filming and photography on their lands. A 2000
amend its regulations to accord with those of the other DOI
law, P.L. 106-206 (codified at 16 U.S.C. 460l-6d and 54
agencies. Special filming and photography restrictions for
U.S.C. §100905), directed the Secretaries of the Interior and
Indian lands administered by DOI’s Bureau of Indian
Agriculture to require permits and develop a consistent fee
Affairs (43 C.F.R. Part 5, Subpart B) remain unchanged.
structure for commercial filming and some types of
photography on federal lands. Pursuant to the law, the
The DOI regulations define commercial filming and still
agencies have established permitting procedures and are
photography consistently for BLM, NPS, and FWS and
currently in the process of standardizing fees. Legislation in
clarify which activities require a permit, in accordance with
the 116th Congress would have altered requirements for the
P.L. 106-206. The regulations state conditions under which
agencies’ fee schedules and permits.
a filming or photography permit may be denied, such as if
the activity would cause resource damage, unreasonably
disrupt public use, pose health or safety risks, or violate the
DOI and USDA are in the process of standardizing fees
Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131-1136) or other applicable
for commercial filmmaking and photography on federal
laws or regulations. Permit applications are to be processed
lands, which have served as locations for many wel -
in a “timely manner,” and permit denials may be appealed
known films such as Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, and The
to higher levels of DOI management. The regulations also
Hunger Games.
discuss the more limited circumstances in which a permit is
required for news-gathering activities (defined as filming,
Statutory Requirements for Permits and Fees
videography, and still photography carried out by a
representative of the news media). Among other conditions,
Under P.L. 106-206, the Secretaries of the Interior and
such a permit is required only if obtaining it would not
Agriculture must require permits and establish reasonable
interfere with the ability to gather the news.
fees for commercial filming on federal lands. The fees must
take into account (1) the number of days of filming, (2) the
Permit holders are responsible for two types of payments: a
size of the film crew, (3) the amount and type of equipment,
location fee that provides a fair return to the nation for the
and (4) other factors that the Secretaries deem appropriate.
The fees must provide a “fair return”
use of federal land and repayment of costs incurred by the
(undefined in the law)
government in processing the request and administering the
to the nation for the activity. In addition to fees, the
permit. The permit holder also has liability,
Secretaries must recover any administrative, personnel, or
indemnification, and bonding requirements.
other costs incurred by the agencies during filming. Permits
are not to be issued if the activity would damage resources,
Forest Service. FS follows regulations for commercial
unreasonably disrupt public use and enjoyment of a site, or
filming and photography permits (36 C.F.R. 251) which
pose health and safety risks.
were in place prior to passage of P.L. 106-206. FS
collaborated with DOI on a new fee schedule proposed in
Still photography requires a permit or fee only if it is in an
2013 (see below). Also, in 2014, FS proposed but did not
area that is not ordinarily open to the public, if additional
finalize a directive to establish additional criteria for
administrative costs are likely, or if models or props other
than the site’s own resources are used.
commercial filming and photography in congressionally

designated wilderness areas (79 Federal Register 52626).
For example, such activity would have had to be focused
Fees and costs collected under P.L. 106-206 are to be
primarily on disseminating information about wilderness,
available for use by the collecting agencies without further
would have had to preserve the area’s wilderness character
appropriation. The majority of funds are retained at the site
as defined in the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131(c)), and
at which they were collected, and the fees may be used for
would have had to be wilderness-dependent (unable to be
purposes such as backlogged repair and maintenance
carried out elsewhere). Some Members of Congress and
projects, interpretation, signage, facility enhancement,
other stakeholders objected to the proposed FS directive,
resource preservation, fee collection, and law enforcement.
especially questioning whether it would infringe on the
First Amendment rights of news reporters. FS stated that

link to page 2 Commercial Filming and Photography on Federal Lands
the proposed directive would not affect news gathering in
currently pays a fee of $250 per day, but under the proposed
wilderness areas. In 2019, FS withdrew the proposed rule
schedule the fee would decrease to $75 per day.
(84 Federal Register 47443).
In scoring the 2000 legislation, the Congressional Budget
Proposed Fee Schedule
Office stated that the act’s effects “would depend on many
Along with the August 2013 DOI final rule, DOI and
behavioral factors that cannot be predicted with
USDA jointly published a proposed fee schedule to set
confidence.” For example, to the extent that the new fees
uniform fees for commercial filming and photography
represent increases from previous amounts, they could
activities (78 Federal Register 52209). Table 1 shows the
bring in more revenue or they could discourage filmmakers
proposed fees.
and photographers from using federal sites. Congress may
monitor the financial effects of the new regulations and any
Table 1. Proposed DOI/USDA Land-Use Fee Schedule
new fees over time.
for Commercial Filming and Photography
Recent Litigation and Policy Developments
Commercial Filming

In January 2021, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court
Number of People
for the District of Columbia ruled that the NPS permitting
program—specifically the commercial filming provisions
1-3, camera and tripod only
$10/day or $250/month
of the program—violated the free speech clause of the First
1-5, more than a camera and tripod
Amendment. The court issued an injunction preventing
NPS, BLM, and FWS from enforcing the fee and permit
regulations for commercial filming (Price v. Barr et al.,
In response, NPS issued interim guidance in February 2021
that exempts “low-impact” filming from permitting
requirements and requires permits only for filming
More than 70
activities that may affect public health and safety, impair
resources, or interfere with visitor experiences. NPS defines
Still Photography

“low-impact” filming as groups of five people or fewer
Number of People
carrying their own equipment and using small tripods to
hold their cameras. Filming on areas managed as wilderness
1-3, camera and tripod only
$10/day or $250/month
will remain subject to permitting requirements, regardless
1-5, more than a camera and tripod
of group size or equipment used. NPS has indicated that
until further guidance is issued, it will not charge any
filming-related fees, including location fees, application
fees, or cost-recovery charges. As of publication, other
agencies with permitting programs authorized under P.L.
106-206 have not issued additional guidance in response to
the ruling.
More than 30
Source: 78 Federal Register 52209.
Recent Legislation
Note: Fees for stil photography would apply only in cases where the
In the 116th Congress, H.R. 2106 would have amended P.L.
photography requires a permit (see above).
106-206 to allow film crews of five or fewer to pay an
annual fee of $200 for filming on federal lands and waters.
The proposed amounts were based on current fees charged
The proposed $200 annual fee would have differed from
by BLM and FS for commercial filming and photography,
the agencies’ proposed fee schedule, which would charge
as well as on public comments received on a draft fee
film crews of five or fewer with more than a camera and
schedule previously proposed by NPS and discussions with
tripod $75 per day. The bill would have exempted
state and local film commissioners and industry
individuals and small businesses that already hold certain
representatives. The agencies received public comments but
other permits from needing a commercial filming and
have not published a final schedule or made subsequent
photography permit. Another bill in the 116th Congress,
announcements regarding its status.
H.R. 1326, had similar provisions to H.R. 2106 but would
Financial Effects of New Fees
have exempted from paying fees (but not from cost
recovery) film crews of three or fewer that qualify as small
In some cases, the fees proposed for uniform use across the
businesses and use only a camera and tripod. In addition,
four agencies represent a change from fees currently
H.R. 5521 would have allowed commercial filming and
charged by individual agencies. Certain fees would
photography, at the discretion of the Capitol Police, in
increase, and others would decrease, depending on the
portions of the U.S. Capitol grounds where these activities
agency involved and other factors. For example, a
currently are prohibited.
commercial filming crew of 60 people working at an NPS
site such as Grand Canyon National Park currently pays a
Mark K. DeSantis, Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
fee of $750 per day. Under the proposed schedule, the fee
would increase to $1,000 per day. By contrast, a crew of
five people filming at a BLM site in California or Utah

Commercial Filming and Photography on Federal Lands

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