August 18, 2020
Charis Wilson, FOIA Officer
National Park Service
P.O. Box 25287
12795 W. Alameda Parkway
Denver, CO 80225
Subject: Freedom of Information Act Request
Dear Ms. Wilson:
This is a request under the Freedom of Information Improvement Act of 2016 (Public Law No. 114-185) submitted on behalf of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. This request relates directly to the NPS closure of portions of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial on August 17, 2020 to allow filming of a Republican political campaign ad involving Vice President Mike Pence. The purpose of the closure is described in local news articles; and the extent of the closure of park features is described on the park’s website (www.nps.gov/libo).
LEGAL AND POLICY BACKGROUND
16 USC § 4061–6d (a) requires the Secretary of the Interior to “require a permit and… establish a reasonable fee for commercial filming activities or similar projects on Federal lands administered by the Secretary.” This, in essence, is a “location fee” collected for use of the site. Paragraph (b) of the same law also requires the Secretary to “collect any costs incurred as a result of filming activities or similar project, including administrative and personnel costs. All costs recovered shall be in addition to the fee assessed in subsection (a).”
Department of the Interior commercial filming regulations at 43 CFR § 5.5 state that an Interior agency (in this case the NPS) will deny a filming permit request if that activity would “unreasonably disrupt or conflict with the public’s use and enjoyment of the site.” Similarly, 43 CFR § 5.6 states that the agency (in this case the NPS) may impose permit conditions intended to “prevent unreasonable disruption of the public’s use and enjoyment” of the site.
The public notice dated August 16, 2020, posted as an “Alert” on the park website, indicates that NPS would be closing the core historical features of the park (i.e., the Cabin Site Memorial, the Living Historical Farm, and the Lincoln Spring and associated parking) for nearly the entire day on August 17, 2020, from approximately 8:30 am until 4:00 pm, to allow for the filming. Outlying areas, essentially the park grounds, would remain open to the visiting public.
NPS Management Policies 2006, Section 188.8.131.52 on Filming Permits and Fees, defines “commercial filming” as “filming that involves the digital or film recording of a visual image or sound recording by a person, business, or other entity for a market audience. This includes recordings such as those used for a documentary, television or feature film, advertisement, or similar project.” Obviously, filming a political campaign advertisement in a park meets the definition of commercial filming; and therefore requires a permit, collection of a reasonable location fee, and recovery of all NPS costs associated with the filming activity.
Further, Management Policies, Section 184.108.40.206 on NPS Participation in commercial filming activities, includes the following provisions: “NPS employees, while on duty or in uniform, will not be employed by filming permittees; and identifiable NPS equipment, uniforms, or insignia must not be portrayed in any way that would imply Service endorsement of a product or service.” In other words, it is inappropriate for NPS employees, equipment, uniforms, or insignia (such as the NPS arrowhead) to be portrayed in any way in political campaign ads that would imply NPS endorsement of particular party or candidate.
In brief, there are a number of requirements associated with allowing commercial filming, in this case of a political ad, within units of the National Park System. If not properly permitted and managed by NPS in accordance with these requirements, such filming could “unreasonably disrupt or conflict with the public’s use and enjoyment of the site”; and could create the perception that the current Administration is abusing it authority over units of the National Park System for political self-promotion during a heated national election. The parks belong to all Americans and should be managed in a non-partisan fashion. The public has a right to know, in a timely manner, how NPS is administering commercial filming of political ads, particularly as the campaign season moves into its final months.
We are willing to pay up to $250.00 in processing fees, if necessary.
DESCRIPTION OF DOCUMENTS REQUESTED
We request the following documents under the Freedom of Information Act:
A copy of the NPS permit, and all attachments thereto, issued for the filming activity that occurred at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial on August 17, 2020.
REQUEST EXPEDITED PROCESSING
In accordance with 43 CFR, Subpart D, § 2.20, we hereby ask for expedited processing of this FOIA request by NPS for the reasons described below.
There is an urgency to inform the public about the NPS permitting the filming of partisan political ads within units of the National Park System. As the campaign season heats up in the days and weeks ahead, there will likely be more campaign events seeking permits for NPS venues. Moving forward it is imperative that NPS follow existing requirements and be transparent and non-partisan in how it grants and administers permits for such requests.
I am not a full time member of the news media; however, one of my primary roles as Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks is information dissemination. As a 501(c)3) organization, the Coalition advocates for the conservation and proper management of America’s National Park System. We do so primarily through submitting written comments to management agencies or issuing statements and disseminating information to the public and the news media regarding Federal Government proposals and actions related to the use of parks or that would adversely impact parks.
The value of the requested information will be lost if not disseminated quickly in order to inform the public in a timely manner how the NPS is administering permits for partisan political campaign events in parks during the current campaign season. This is a matter of public exigency, as candidates may seek to conduct additional political activities (such as advertisement filming and campaign speeches) in parks during the final months before the general election in November 2020.
As required under 43 CFE § 2.20(b)(2), I certify that the above information is true and correct to the best of my knowledge.
REQUEST A FEE WAIVER
To determine my status with regard to fees, you should know that I am the Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. The Coalition is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to study, educate, speak, and act for the preservation and protection of the National Park System and mission-related programs of the National Park Service.
Disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in my commercial interest. Having such information will enable the Coalition to more effectively communicate and advocate for the protection of park resources and the public’s opportunities to use and enjoy our national parks without unreasonable disruption from park closures due to partisan political activities.
Given the limited scope and exigent nature of this request, we would appreciate a timely response. Thank you for your consideration.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
cc: Margaret Everson, Acting Director, National Park Service
Charis Wilson, FOIA Officer, National Park Service
Rhonda B. Schier, Superintendent, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial
UPDATE: 9/9/20 – NPS FOIA Response: Closure of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial