Charging Ansel Adams to Shoot in the National Parks

I’m all for the American people getting a fair return on any public assets that private businesses use to turn a profit. But what’s the deal with the new Interior Department regulations that require wildlife photographers and documentary filmmakers to pay a “location fee” in order to shoot inside national parks? As of May 15, new rules issued by the National Park Service will require “location fees for commercial filming and still photography” ranging from $150 to more than $500 per day. It’s a good thing that these rules were not around when Ansel Adams was memorializing the West. He probably could not have afforded the new fees, and we would all be the poorer.

The vigor with which the Interior Department is pushing its new user fees stands in stark contrast to its kid-glove treatment of oil and mining companies. Industrial giants are given cut-rate access to our oil, natural gas, silver coal and other resources, from which they make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. They also have the audacity to leave behind a costly mess of pollution. Yet the Interior somehow finds it imperative to dun nature photographers and filmmakers, many of them small operators or nonprofits, in order to shoot the Grand Tetons or Yosemite. Even the making of “soundtracks” in the parks will require a permit.

In fairness, the Interior Department is acting in response to a 2000 law requiring it to charge location fees for filming on any lands overseen by the Department. But the sponsor of that legislation, Senator Craig Thomas of Wyoming, said the law was intended to recoup costs from major Hollywood films shot in the national parks, not to soak small-time operators. This makes sense. A major film studio should pay location fees if its shoot in Yellowstone entails disruptions and special costs.

But in general, documentary filming and still-live photography does not deplete any resources or cause pollution. It’s a benign, if not constructive use, of what economists call a public good. Moreover, bringing images of the national parks closer to the American people can hardly be considered a bad thing. So why is the Interior Department trying to make it more costly? Anticipated revenues from the new rules are estimated at $1.6 million.

Bob Landis, a documentary filmmaker who won an Emmy for his 2004 documentary Wolf Pack, concedes that it wouldn’t be bad if the National Park Service charged more than it currently does. A regular permit to shoot during the entire summer used to cost $200. Landis estimates that the 300 days a year that he spends shooting in Yellowstone will cost him at least $45,000 a year under the new plan. (See Associated Press story, April 29.)

By now, it is trite to complain about the misguided priorities of this Administration. There are SO many issues to cite. What these Interior Department rules show, however, is just how effective it has been in extending warped priorities to the most remote reaches of public policymaking — nature photography on public lands.