Photo Attorney

Nov 3, 2005

Photographing our National Parks

Photographers love to shoot the treasures of our National Parks. But if you look too much like a professional with a tripod or long lens, you might get hassled by Park Rangers who insist on a permit or try to curtail your photography. Who's right? It depends.

Photography in National Parks falls under "Special Park Uses" and is addressed in Director’s Order #53. A "special park use" is a short-term activity that takes place in a park area and:

* provides a benefit to an individual, group or organization, rather than the public at large;
* requires written authorization and some degree of management control from the National Park Service ["NPS"] in order to protect park resources and the public interest;
* is not prohibited by law or regulation; and
* is neither initiated, sponsored, nor conducted by the NPS.

Fortunately, Section 14 of D.O. #53 specifically provides an exception to the written authorization requirement for photography. It states that a permit is not required for:

* a visitor using a camera and/or a recording device for his/her own personal use and within normal visitation areas and hours;
* a commercial photographer not using a prop, model, or set, and staying within normal visitation areas and hours; or
* press coverage of breaking news.

This fits the profile of most photographers, even pros. However, be sure to get a permit when your photography:

* involves the use of a model, set, or prop;
* requires entry into a closed area; or
* requires access to the park before or after normal working hours.

Any activity, including photography, must not:

* cause injury or damage to park resources;
* be contrary to the purposes for which the park was established;
* unreasonably impair the atmosphere of peace and tranquility maintained in wilderness, natural, historic or commemorative locations within the park;
* unreasonably interfere with the interpretive, visitor service, or other program activities, or with the administrative activities of the NPS;
* substantially impair the operation of public facilities or services of NPS concessioners or contractors;
* present a clear and present danger to public health and safety; or
* result in significant conflict with other existing uses.

D.O. #53 lists a "sunset date" of April 2004. A sunset law requires administrative bodies to periodically justify their existence to the legislature. While the confirmation of D.O. #53 has been held up by Public Law #106206 because of other issues, there is no need for concern. The Program Manager of Special Uses for the NPS, Lee Dickinson, confirmed via telephone this week that the NPS considers D.O. #53 "still in effect." She also expects P.L. #106206 to be implemented soon.

So for now, photograph our beautiful National Parks to your heart's content. Keep a copy of the D.O. #53 in your camera bag to share with the Ranger, if needed. And if you get harassed, contact an attorney to determine your rights and remedies.

Take my advice; get professional help.