Influencers get a legislative hand on federal lands filming

JACKSON — New legislation spearheaded by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso proposes to do away with permit fees for small film crews and social media influencers shooting video on most federal land.

The bill introduced by Wyoming’s senior senator, called the Federal Interior Land Media Act, would codify a recent legal decision that led the National Park Service to suspend permit fees for “low-impact” filming outside wilderness areas.

While that change in policy is confined to 85 million acres of Park Service property, the law that has been pitched would prohibit charging fees on all land under the U.S. Department of Interior and Agriculture, which totals more than 520 million acres.

Barrasso told the Jackson Hole Daily that his intent is to cut red tape that burdens sponsored bloggers, social media influencers and film crews that aren’t larger than 10 people.

“All of those folks, we don’t think that they need to go through the rigmarole of getting permits and paying fees,” Barrasso said. “People want to share their adventures.”

The potential policy shift has support in Jackson Hole circles. Wilson-based Teton Gravity Research, most famous for its ski cinematography, blogged about the legislation, writing that permitting on federal lands has “never been straightforward or easy.”

“Up until last January, trying to obtain a film permit was either an arduous process or impossible altogether,” TGR’s post says. “That could change with current legislation headed to the U.S. Senate floor by Senator John Barrasso.”

A former high-ranking U.S. Department of the Interior official who lives on the Snake River’s west bank is also advocating for the reform. Rob Wallace, Interior’s former assistant secretary in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Park Service, said he recently ran into some filmmakers at Lees Ferry on the Colorado River and heard their frustrations firsthand.

“They were completely flummoxed on how to proceed,” Wallace told the Daily. “Should they go to Glen Canyon to get a permit? Should they go to the South Rim? What’s a permit cost? And they were having zero impact on the resource.”

Wyoming Office of Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober also called the FILM Act a “really good bill.”

“We live in an age when people from all walks of life can share their adventure stories in a virtual environment,” Shober said in a statement disseminated by Barrasso’s office. “The FILM Act will guarantee that the people who visit Wyoming’s parks and public lands can record and share their stories online and through social media without asking the government for permission.”

The suspension of permit fees for small film crews on Park Service lands followed a January federal court ruling that found the fees unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly issued a permanent injunction halting the filming requirements, saying the fees could have a “chilling effect” for a “wide swath” of visitors to national parks.

The ruling came after Gordon Price, an independent filmmaker from Yorktown, Virginia, filed a lawsuit to challenge the permitting system. The Park Service fined Price after he made a film at Yorktown Battlefield in Colonial National Historical Park without getting a permit. Price challenged being required to pay a fee when noncommercial entities and news crews are exempt.

The precedent that was created did not extend to other classes of federal lands. If unchanged and successful, Barrasso’s legislation would do that, doing away with permit fees for small crews on other federal lands in Teton County, like the Bridger-Teton National Forest and National Elk Refuge.