by Eric Reuter, Freelance Scientific Editor, Naturalist, and Educator, Boone County, MO.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has adopted new rules requiring fee-based permits for commercial photography or videography on MDC conservation areas. These permits cover any activity that “directly or indirectly results in financial benefit or gain.” MDC confirmed, in writing, that this has no exemptions, applying even to hobby photographers selling a few pictures at craft shows or YouTube channels earning even minor ad-based revenue. While this already seems rather burdensome, the permits’ structure creates a far greater problem.
Photography requires “only” an annual $100 permit that expires every June 30 and must be applied for 30 days in advance. However, to collect any video, in any manner, for any purpose that might result in any financial gain, an applicant must pre-apply 30 days in advance for specific daily permits (at $500 each) and provide proof of $2 million liability coverage. A waiver from the payment and insurance requirements may be requested on each application, which must still be submitted for any day video might be collected.
It is reasonable for MDC to want to know when photography or filming might disrupt a conservation area (such as the use of extra lighting, heavy equipment, drones, or large crews). The rules do account for this, requiring extra Special Use permits for “activities not normally allowed.” Bizarrely, however, these are free, regardless of how much damage or disruption might occur. This gets the sensible priorities precisely backward; financial gain is not an inherent threat to conservation land, and nonesuch financial activities can still cause damage or disruption. Such rules are clearly aimed at larger operations such as film companies and major documentary makers, which have known schedules and defined budgets. But how could a hunter or naturalist YouTuber with a smartphone or video-capable SLR camera know, one month in advance, just which day they might visit a conservation area, much less afford $500/visit?
This approach seems unaware that video is now a near-ubiquitous form of communication and education for anyone with a digital device, and oblivious to the scope and economics of modern digital video publication. Google certainly profits from every video posted to YouTube; will MDC attempt to recoup permit costs there, rather than from individuals? Indirect financial gain from basic video collection and publication may be incurred by a researcher who earns grant funds, a non-profit that earns donations, a student who earns a scholarship, or a YouTuber who earns advertisement revenue; these cannot be expected to apply for daily permits. In addition, conservation agents have better things to do than check every visitor with an iPhone to see if they have a YouTube channel and a corresponding videography permit. Few people will realize such rules apply to them, while those who do will be excluded from ever collecting video on MDC lands due to the prohibitive requirements.
This situation could easily be remedied. One fix would drop the permit requirements entirely below a reasonable level of financial gain or project size (with significant bureaucratic savings). Another would make the expensive daily permits and insurance requirements apply only to large filming operations and/or Special Use situations, while applying a low-cost annual permit to basic handheld photography and video (which are essentially the same for modern digital devices). Rules should also be clear and fair regarding whom they apply to, not discriminating against private business activity; many artists and YouTubers are incorporated as businesses, even if acting as individuals.
MDC plans to review these regulations in January. Public comment would help craft new rules that better account for the ways that modern Missourians document, share, and learn about our natural resources while not creating undue bureaucratic or financial burdens.
A summary of the current rules and links to the permit applications (which make the bureaucratic burden clear) can be found at: https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/activities/photography. This situation was discussed on the MoBIRDS LISTSERV recently and State Ornithologist Sarah Kendrick replied to the concerns: she provided further context for these rules and confirmed that MDC is planning revisions. Although MDC does seem to understand the problem, further public comment would help ensure that diverse viewpoints are considered when drafting the improved rules. Please consider reading the perspectives linked above, then submitting comments on 3 CSR 10-11.111 by the end of the year.