On January 22, a federal district court handed down a small decision that could have a big impact for how you get to experience public lands. The plaintiff, an independent filmmaker, filed suit after the National Park Service fined him for shooting a movie at Virginia’s Colonial National Historic Park without a permit. His claim was that the agency had violated his First Amendment rights by requiring a permit for his commercial shoot, but not for non-commercial filming. The court ultimately ruled in his favor, opening up 450 million acres of Interior Department-managed land to unregulated commercial filming, and leaving the door open to challenge similar regulations on Forest Service territory.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: It’s free to take not-for-profit, personal footage or photos on public lands, and it should be. We’re all public landowners, after all. But commercial filming is something different. Traditionally, the federal government has regulated all commercial uses on public land, from grazing to guiding to concession sales. Until this ruling, commercial filming and photography fell under that umbrella too. Over the past 30 years, land managers had continually updated rules around it as new technologies—smartphones in particular—have blurred the line between commercial shoots and personal snapshots. As budgets fell and visitation skyrocketed, commercial permits provided a critical funding source to cash-starved agencies like the National Park Service.
Let me be clear that I am not a federal employee, just a private citizen who happens to work for a non-profit conservation organization. We help steward and manage federal wilderness areas in the Southeast, where the Forest Service doesn’t have the staff to do it by itself; non-profits like mine are taking over more and more of the workload on our public lands. I am immensely grateful to be able to have the opportunity to do work that I love and make a wage that pays the bills, but I am also the only person fully dedicated to monitoring over 50,000 acres of designated wilderness as my first “real” job out of college. We have 640 million acres of public lands in this country, and as of 2020, we spend just 0.1% of our budget to maintain them. The more we cut funding, the more thinly-staffed our lands are going to be.
Falling revenues aren’t the only potential consequence of unregulated commercial filming. That car commercial or magazine feature reaches a much wider audience than your selfie does, and the internet lets us access information about our wild places, including remote and sensitive ones, like never before. We’ve seen the impacts that geotagging and internet publicity has had in specific locations, like Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, where visitation has jumped from around 4,000 to over 2.2 million per year since it gained national attention in 2015. This same trend is true for areas around the country. Covid, which is driving record numbers of people outside, is only deepening the impacts.
This fall, instead of educating visitors about how to tread lightly in the wilderness, I was directing traffic after we had a two-hour gridlock on a mountain-top dirt road, five miles from the closest pavement. I’ve packed out hundreds of pounds of trash left behind by visitors, discovered campfires left burning, dismantled numerous fire rings, found countless live trees damaged for firewood (actually a federal crime), buried human waste, and watched trails get noticeably wider, just in the span of a single season. Our largely volunteer-run rural EMS program has been stressed by the increasing volume of search and rescue incidents both in wilderness and in other areas around the forest. Allowing unregulated commercial filming creates the publicity that drives impacts like this without paying for the education or personnel that could prevent it.
We like to think of “ecotourism” as a sustainable, low-impact business, but that’s not always true. The reality is that just like extractive industry, recreation has very real impacts on the functioning of ecosystems. Requiring permits lets agencies anticipate and account for the impacts of increased visitation resulting from commercial filming and hold content creators accountable for following the policies and laws of the land. By getting rid of them, we’re poking holes in land managers’ ability to enforce a bevy of critical environmental and cultural protection laws, from the Endangered Species Act to the Wilderness Act to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The National Park Service, already straining at the seams, loses another tool it could use to fulfill its dual mandate, “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
The First Amendment is critical—a free nation requires the ability for a private citizen to speak out without fear of repercussion. To stretch that into the right to freely profit off of our shared spaces is another matter. If this ruling isn’t appealed and struck down, we are going to leave behind a legacy of damaged lands and disappearing wildlife for those who come after.
Christina Platt is a wilderness steward, researcher, and educator based in West Virginia who is interested in the impact of technology on our wild places. She came to work in public lands after leaving a career in the tech industry.