Photographing in US National Parks and other federal public lands

By Q.-Tuan Luong for the Large Format Page, part of Travels, 4/2001

Summary: an explanation of the official rules and regulations for photographing on National Parks and Monuments, and discussion of access in some particular Parks. Parts of this document are superceded by Jeff Conrad's Still Photography and Permits On US and California Public Land which offers a much thorough discussion with up to date (6/2003) references.

The US National Parks provide a unique combination of unspoiled and magnificent scenery, huge variety at the scale of a continent, and for most of them, easy access and existence of a wealth of information. For these reasons, they are popular photographic destinations, and some people think that nothing new can be created there. Even if this was a concern (which could be disputed) this couldn't be less true. Just to cite one example, in the most photographed parks of all, Yosemite, William Neil managed to create a body of significant and distinctive work, even though he photographed in a section of the Park representing less than 5% of it, and visited exclusively by more than 95% of visitors. Wander out of the beaten path, and new possibilities could be endless. Or enjoy the classical views and sight, after all there is a reason why they are classic. US National Parks are particularly convenient for LF photography because in many of them the roads have been optimized to let you travel by car close to some of the most interesting features, that you can see from overlooks or by doing short hikes. You can often stay in a campground or at a lodge inside the park to be close to the action, and the visitor center will provide you with plenty of information. When I visit a new park, I always browse all the publications and postcards available at the visitor center to get an idea of the possibilities.

There are very few limitations in the Parks (see next section). As a photographer, you have to be particularly careful about respecting the closures and other regulations. An inconsiderate action on your part could potentially give a black eye to all other photographers, and maybe affect access in the future. When working with a LF camera, you are more visible than other photographers.

I know the US National Parks quite well. I have been working on a project to photograph each of them with my 5x7 camera, the largest used to the best of my knowledge for such a project, which has been completed in any format by only a handful of photographers. As of the writing of this article, I have visited 50 out of the 57 National Parks of the US, making multiple visits to most of them.

The comments in this article generally apply to the lands administrated by the National Park Service (NPS). This includes National Parks, National Monuments, National Seashores and Lakeshores, and a few other designations. Other federal lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Forest Service, have regulations which are basically similar. On the other hand, public lands under state regulations (such as State Parks) might have different regulations. For instance, here in California, in theory you need a (free) permit to do stock or fine-art photography in the State Parks.

Official Rules and Regulations

In short:
"The NPS will not require a permit for photographers, commercial or non-commercial, to go anywhere or to do anything that members of the public are generally allowed to go or do without a permit."
Therefore, a photographer, regardless of the amount or types of equipment he carries, is not subjected to any particular restriction other than those which apply to the general public. If you need to go to an area closed to the public, or be there at a time when an area is closed, of course you need a permit, but so would you even if you were not photographing.

Generally speaking with editorial and fine-art work, there is no need for a permit, because you'd be photographing only what is found in the park, and not using a crew. Even if your photos are going to be used as commercial stock, as long as they are taken in accordance with the quoted paragraph you don't need to apply for a special permit. You also do not need any type of property release, as long as you're not photographing a private property inside the park. Releases protect a person's right of privacy. Public lands have no such right.

On the other hand, some types of commercial photography requires a permit. This is loosely defined by the NPS as anything which requires you to have a model, crew or props, and includes wedding photography. The rules are not "hard" there, and whether or not you would need a permit depends on the amount of activity. The rules were mostly intended towards motion picture production and commercial product photography, which can cause a significant disruption to sites.

If you want to run a workshop in a NP, you need a Incidental Business Permit, since this is considered commercial usage. Such a permit is quite strict regarding your number of participants as well as itinerary. There will be a flat fee of a few hundred dollars for the annual permit, and a participant-based fee, typically $50-$100. This matter is administered individually by each Park, so you should enquire directly with the headquarters. On the other hand, a group of friends travelling together do not face these restrictions, but be aware that running a workshop under this cover is considered a fraudulent activity.

So far, despite a lot of time spent in National Parks, I have not had a single problem with photography, and on the contrary, have found the NPS staff helpful (see next section). However, a reader wrote to me to report that at a NPS site where is is a neighbor and regular visitor, when he walks into the park with a view camera, or a medium format with a bunch of lenses or too many cameras slung over his shoulder, how quick they are to come out and interrogate. The problem is that while the regulations are clear, sometimes park staff base initial judgment on the photographer's equipment, and some assume that anyone using a tripod, or large format camera is doing commercial photography. Park staff are not always familiar with the regulations. It would help for you to have a printed copy of the regulations. Park staff may question the validity of the printed copy, but they usually have access to official versions, in which case knowing the applicable section can be of considerable benefit, especially if the staff member needs to call and ask someone to look it up. See the references section for links to relevant documents.

Specific access issues

In this section, I will detail a few access restrictions I am aware of. Please use the comments section to report on issues such as openings and closings of trails, areas and changes in parking or accommodations.

Opening hours

Most of the parks are open 24 hours/day, but there are a few exceptions. They include Petrified Forest, Carlsbad Caverns, and the coastal section of Biscayne.

Vehicle restrictions

For many years, the West Rim of the Grand Canyon has been closed to private vehicles for most of the year (March to November). The East Rim offers similar views and is not restricted.

In Denali NP, you cannot drive most of the dirt road. There are individual permits allowing you to take your vehicle, but they are not accessible to most photographers. In 2000, you needed to submit 24 nature photographs published in the previous calendar year. Of the 24, 5 needed to be printed in a publication with a circulation over 250,000. You'd then enter a lottery where the number of permits is far less than the number of entrants. However, even with LF, it is relatively practical to work using the shuttle system, as I'll explain in another article.

One of the most recent road closure was at Zion. During the peak season (March through October, more or less), private cars are banned from Zion Canyon except if you are staying at Zion Lodge, which is in the Canyon. There is a bus between Springdale and the visitor center, and another one which goes up and down the Canyon. In practice, the only real adverse consequence is that you need to pack accordingly. Since the Canyon is not a good place to be at sunrise, the fact that the busses don't start at dawn in summer doesn't really matter. Other parts of the Park (which are better at sunrise) are not subjected to the car ban.

Cave regulations

The only places in the Parks where you can expect tripods to be restricted are in some caves. The rationale is that as the trails are narrow, other visitors might stumble on your tripod in the dark, or you might damage formations. The only cave where you can take your tripod in without restriction is the big room of Carlsbad Caverns. However, in other caves, it is often possible to arrange for a private visit. Once you explain to the rangers what you are trying to do, you will most likely find them helpful. A ranger at the Lehman Caves (Great Basin NP), where tripod are prohibited, agreed to give me an after hours tour provided that I pay for her overtime work hours. I arrived at Wind Cave at a time when it was officially closed to the public (the elevator was being repaired), but I was eventually given a free private tour. The only place where they couldn't accommodate my request was in Mammoth cave, but even though, by getting on a regular tour, and using a Bogen super-clamp on the railing, I was able to make a few LF photographs.

Let me conclude this by a personal experience, to show how the NPS folks can be helpful. At Carlsbad caverns, there is one section (Queen's Palace) that you can visit only on a tour, and those tours, while they allow tripods, are conducted on a pace too fast for LF photography. I was in the area only for two days. When speaking with Dale Pate to request a private tour, he was first concerned that this would be "commercial use" and that I would to apply for a permit, which would take several days to obtain. However, after explaining to him that I was in fact working on a book project, he agreed to have a ranger meet me before the official start of the next day. I was given a private tour for free (whereas the normal visitors are charged an entrance fee) experienced the cave in its silence and solitude, and had a very interesting exchange with the ranger, all which wouldn't have happened had I been just a normal visitor.

References and more reading

Thanks to John Bailey for the suggestions.

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