Land of the fee? Expensive permits required to record some videos in national parks

Social media mavens may need to think twice before pulling out their iPhones, GoPros or other video equipment when they’re recording in breathtaking national parks like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon or the Everglades.

The National Park Service is now requiring permits that could cost hundreds of dollars for filming in national parks – including the 11 parks across Florida and more than 400 others across the country – if there is an intent to make money off the recordings. That’s an increasingly common scenario among emerging content creators, including YouTubers, Instagrammers and Tik Tokers, who worry the government is turning out the lights on their growing industry.

One of those YouTubers is Todd Chamberlin, known as The Park Junkie to his nearly 30,000 subscribers, who forgot his favorite hat on the summit of Guadalupe Peak in 2018.

Photo courtesy of Todd Chamberlin

Todd Chamberlin hikes a roughly 15-mile roundtrip mountaineering route up Mount Shuksan Sulfide Glacier in Washington State in the summer of 2022. This trail is generally considered a challenging route and takes an average of over 11 hours to complete.

Agitated, he made the nine-mile, round-trip hike again the next day to the highest point in Texas in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. All his frustrations in retrieving his hat dissolved after witnessing a gorgeous sunset and full moon rising from the east over the sprawling desert before him. He fell to his knees and wept with awe while experiencing a spiritual rebirth, he said.

Now he’s rethinking how he shares such experiences. Publishing any videos on his channel of the sights from that hike – or trips like it – could open him to penalties. Chamberlin’s channel is monetized, but he noted his “filming and travel expenses currently far outweigh my income from Park Junkie.”

“The filming permit application fees alone (not to mention the unrealistic insurance requirements, timeframes & lengthy questionnaires) represent an impenetrable barrier to my channel, and if required to overcome such obstacles, my channel will be forced to fold,” Chamberlin said via email.

He is even considering expanding his channel to covering national parks in different countries where filming requirements are not as prohibitive, he said.

park-junkie-north-cascades-sahale-peak-500x287.jpg

Photo courtesy of Todd Chamberlin

In August 2021, Todd Chamberlin hikes in the North Cascades National Park. He climbed Sahale Mountain to the peak – an 8,681 foot elevation.

“Sad that I should have to consider this, America being the ‘land of the free’ and all,” Chamberlin said. “There are other places of incredible beauty out there, and if my government wants to suppress its citizens’ first amendment rights of speech and press, I suppose I may just take the opportunity to visit some foreign lands.”

The decision to require permits came after a federal appellate court last year reversed a lower court’s decision that the permit requirement was unconstitutional.

The new policy requires a permit for any “commercial filming” on federally owned land, which sometimes could take weeks to obtain and can add up to hundreds of dollars per day. Without the permit, filmmakers and videographers who monetize their content are liable for fines, jail time or banishment from national parks.

“Commercial filming means filming for a market audience with the intent to generate income,” National Park Service spokeswoman Cynthia Hernandez said in an email.

The permit and fee requirements only apply if footage is posted online with an intent to generate income, Hernandez said. She said the park service understands that advances in technology make it easier than ever to publish content online for broad audiences.

Alice Ford, a filmmaker, stuntwoman and YouTuber based out of California with almost 30,000 subscribers, started her channel, Alice Ford Adventures, in 2013 hiking national parks and promoting outdoor adventure. In February, she earned $403 from her channel with her highest earning video that month one about Sequoia National Park, which made $22. Her earnings all depend on average views and minutes watched, so revenue varies, she said.

Ford said she hopes her videos encourage women to travel solo and foster a desire to protect the planet.

030123-Alice-Ford-sub-02-500x281.jpg

Photo courtesy of Alice Ford

Alice Ford stands on Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park in California in March 2022. She was filming her travel guide for the park on this trip.

“That’s the frustrating part for all of us that are like one person or two people or maybe even like three people,” Ford said. “If I was going out there with a film crew, I would 100% be asking for a permit, but that’s not what so many of us are doing.”

She added, “This isn’t a YouTube thing, but this is also restricted free speech and freedom of the press.”

The permitting issue stems from an independent filmmaker, Gordon Price, who was fined by the park service in 2018 for filming parts of his movie in a national park without a permit.

Price’s permit violation charge was ultimately dropped, but he filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2019, saying the government’s power to charge fees for commercial shoots is unconstitutional.

The trial judge sided with Price in its decision in January 2021 – that requiring permits and paying fees for commercial filming is “unconstitutional under the First Amendment.” The court’s opinion added that a “more targeted permitting regime for commercial filming,” specifically for large production crews and heavy equipment, “may pass constitutional muster in the future.” But a federal appeals court overturned the lower court in August in a ruling that authorized permits and fees for filming.

Price’s attorney, Robert Corn-Revere, said in an email that they are seeking to bring the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ian Corzine, a former federal prosecutor and content creator himself, said the regulations requiring permits violate freedom of expression.

030123-Alice-Ford-sub-01-500x294.jpg

Photo courtesy of Alice Ford

Alice Ford, who publishes videos to her YouTube channel “Alice Ford Adventures,” filming a solo video on Pinnacles National Park in California this past May. The High Peaks trail she was on is the best in her opinion.

“It unduly restricts people’s ability to enjoy the national parks and also get out information about them,” said Corzine, who started a YouTube channel in 2018 and is known as the “Metaverse Man” on social media platforms.

“It’s actually not in the interest of the federal government to strictly limit filming and videography in these national parks especially when it extends all the way to the single YouTuber with a GoPro camera,” he added. “Anytime you’re doing videography in these national parks, you’re going to have to get a permit.”

For now, online creators could be cited and fined if they earn money from content from national parks without paying for permits.

“They have the ability now to really like target people if they wanted to, and who’s to say that they’re not going to do that,” Ford said.

The park service’s focus is on commercial filming that has the potential to impact the park, like productions with large equipment, lighting sets and crews of over five people that film in closed or wilderness areas, Hernandez said.

It’s unclear how the National Park Service will enforce its regulations, through sporadic checks of social media posts or officers patrolling the parks to interview anyone recording the sights. Most social media accounts don’t specify online whether they receive any money from advertising or other sources.

One couple on YouTube, known as Kara and Nate to their 3.4 million subscribers, recorded travel videos from their converted Sprinter van. In 2020, before the new regulations went into effect, the park service fined them over $1,000 for recording two videos in the Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes national parks. A viewer complained to the agency that the videos represented commercial recordings.

The couple explained in a video how they resolved their fines but were told they could never film again in any national park without a permit. “We fall into this gray area, where this form and this process is just kind of ridiculous for a YouTube channel that’s going to bring a handheld camera into a park and film,” Nate said. Kara added: “It wouldn’t be worth it.”

“For the foreseeable future, we won’t be visiting national parks,” Nate said.

030123-Cris-Hazzard-sub-01-500x353.jpeg

Photo courtesy of Cris Hazzard

Cris Hazzard stands at the summit of Mount Baldy in Angeles National Forest in Kagel Canyon, California.

The current park service rules say a permit is required “no matter the size of the crew or the type of equipment” and that “individuals or small groups that don’t use much equipment” but generate revenue on platforms like TikTok or YouTube also need a permit.

Cris Hazzard, who is from southern California and is known as “The Hiking Guy” to his over 55,000 YouTube subscribers, started filming his hiking, training and gear guides almost 10 years ago. Hiking tips to friends turned into a website and channel with turn-by-turn guides on different national parks.

Hazzard earns money from his YouTube channel but said he isn’t doing it for money. “I do it because I love the parks and sharing my recommendations,” Hazard said. For one of his videos from two years ago about a popular trail in a popular park – Mist Trail at Yosemite which has over 35,000 views – he only made 93 cents in the last seven or so days, he said. Less popular videos will likely earn him less than 10 cents a week.

“Never at one time did I think I’m gonna be rich off this,” Hazzard said. “Hiking is my passion, and the guides are a part-time job – I have another part-time job, but I’m not like a YouTuber who makes millions of dollars a year.”

030123-Cris-Hazzard-sub-02-500x375.jpeg

Photo courtesy of Cris Hazzard

Cris Hazzard hikes through Joshua Tree Hill National Park in California.

To obtain a permit, someone like Hazzard must pay an application fee and any additional charges for processing the application, which vary across parks. If the application is approved, another fee is owed for the actual permit.

Permits can be pricey. For crews of one to 10 people, it’s $150 per day, $250 per day for 11 to 30 people, $500 per day for 31 to 49 people and $750 per day for crews of 50 people or more, according to the guidelines.

“Getting a permit is not going to be a big deal for them, or even paying a $1,000 fine is not going to be a big deal for them,” Hazzard said of large TV or movie productions. “It’s really an issue for smaller creators who just can’t afford to pay a few hundred bucks for a video that they’re not going to make any money off.”

For smaller channels trying to gain a larger following, the permitting policy discourages and prevents growth, said George Fazio, who started filming in national parks along the East Coast in 2020. Revenue from small- or medium-sized channels most likely won’t even cover all the fees associated with obtaining a permit.

030123-George-Fazio-sub-01-500x375.jpg

Photo courtesy of George Fazio

On Jan. 10 2021, George Fazio enjoys a birthday hike at Long View State Park on the Hudson River in New York.

Fazio, 69, known as Lark518Photo on YouTube, is based out of Albany, New York, and has been hiking for about a decade. When the COVID-19 lockdowns began, he set out to film campground tours. He said his channel makes no money yet but has over 100 subscribers. Fazio’s concern is that his channel won’t reach its full potential.

“Small channels are gonna hurt more, and it’s gonna keep them from growing more,” Fazio said. “I can’t afford $150 or $250.”

For many of these YouTubers, being in nature isn’t just a hobby – it’s a belief system. To be the only human being for miles and miles while hiking or filming, spreading messages of respect and love for national parks on social platforms is their way of life.

“What if you weren’t able to communicate your beliefs online? What if you weren’t allowed to write a Facebook post or send a snapchat to a friend?” Corzine said.

Chamberlin said he wants to continue encouraging people to do what he has done: find themselves within these national treasures.

“It’s kind of obvious to me that people are much happier when they’re experiencing worlds like that,” Chamberlin said. “Instead of just the doom and gloom of everyday urban life or everyday suburban life – we’re not meant to be sitting in a box all the time because that’s not what we’ve done throughout our 100,000 year history of human development, you know?”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected].