Murkowski kin may gain from fight against filming limits

By Corbin Hiar | 07/23/2015 07:17 AM EDT

It should be cheaper and easier to film on public lands for the sake of sportsmen, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski told Interior Secretary Sally Jewell earlier this year.

It should be cheaper and easier to film on public lands for the sake of sportsmen, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski told Interior Secretary Sally Jewell earlier this year.

Hunters "want to be able to show our amazing public lands through capturing videos and photographs" but are stymied by the burdensome and inconsistent requirements of land management agencies, the Alaska Republican said at the end of a February budget hearing.

But legislation introduced by Murkowski to simplify the permitting process hearing wouldn’t just help sportsmen who want to make and market videos of their adventures. It would also, the chairwoman revealed in a recent interview, benefit her nephew, Ben Sturgulewski, an independent filmmaker based in Portland, Ore.


"The permits that are required for him to film on public lands are the same as if you have one of the reality TV shows coming up with a whole big film crew," said Murkowski, whose home state is reportedly the setting of more than 20 loosely scripted programs in some stage of production. "The process for him to go and film is in my view unduly onerous and expensive."

Prior to 2000, the Department of the Interior was prohibited from charging filmmakers for the use of national parks or refuges. As a result, George Lucas paid nothing to the agency when he shot several of the Tatooine desert scenes in "Star Wars" in Death Valley National Park. That sci-fi epic — one of hundreds of movies that were filmed for free in national parks — went on to gross $775 million in 1977, more than any other film at that time.

After Congress changed the law governing filming on public lands, Interior and the Department of Agriculture sought to clarify when filmmakers and photographers need to apply to shoot in national parks, forests, wildlife refuges or on other public lands. Regulations finalized in 2013 require all operations "with the intent of generating income" to obtain a permit — no matter how small they are.

At the same time, the agencies proposed a fee schedule for those filming permits. In addition to processing charges, movie producers would be required to pay between $10 and $1,500 a day, depending on their crew size. Commercial still photographers would be charged a review fee and between $10 and $450 a day, both of which vary depending on the number of crew members.

Furthermore, filmmakers and photographers would need to arrange insurance to cover any potential impacts their shoots could have on the public lands (Greenwire, Aug. 22, 2013).

The agencies still haven’t finalized the fee proposal. But if it was in effect, Sturgefilm, the company founded by Murkowski’s nephew, could’ve been required to file paperwork and pay hundreds of dollars if Sturgulewski and his small crew had wanted to shoot some footage over the Independence Day holiday weekend when he visited his grandfather, former Alaska Gov. and Sen. Frank Murkowski. That’s because the Republican patriarch’s home is in Wrangell, Alaska, an island community in the heart of the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest.

"For him to basically do the filming that he would have wanted to do, he’s gotta have a permit from the Forest Service because the footage that he’s taking may or may not end up in something that he’s able to sell," Lisa Murkowski explained. "I’m thinking that we’ve got to make this a little bit easier."

An Instagram photo of Ben Sturgulewski (right) in the Swiss Alps with “Snowflake,” a man he called “perhaps my new favorite human being.” | Photo courtesy of Instagram.

Last year, Sturgulewski posted a 4½-minute video that was shot in and around Wrangell and Anchorage during the summer solstice. Described as "an aerial wander through the land of the midnight sun," the pulsating, dialogue-free film was highlighted as a "Vimeo Staff Pick" and has been viewed more than 250,000 times.

After the February budget hearing, Lisa Murkowski pressed Jewell to clarify Interior’s regulations for filming on public lands. In one question for the hearing record, obtained by Greenwire via a Freedom of Information Act request, she asked Jewell whether the department would "consider exempting from permitting a de minimis number of people who might engage in filming" on public lands.

The secretary responded that "the Department’s regulations contain a number of exemptions from the permitting requirements that capture a number of [insignificant] activities." By way of example, Jewell noted that "still photography and news-gathering activities generally do not require a permit."

Murkowski, however, was unsatisfied with those limited exemptions.

At the end of February, the chairwoman rolled out a sweeping bill that would make it easier for Sturgulewski, who’s the 28-year-old son of her older sister, and others like him to film on public lands. S. 556 calls for crews of five people or fewer to be able to pay a $200 fee for an annual commercial filming permit that would allow them access to shoot video on any lands or waters managed by Interior.

The "Sportsmen’s Act," as the popular bipartisan legislation has been dubbed, would also bolster opportunities to hunt, fish and shoot targets on federal lands.

At an Energy and Natural Resources hearing the next month, Steve Ellis, the deputy director for operation at the Bureau of Land Management, criticized the commercial filming provision of S. 556. He said it does not provide adequate time for land managers to ensure that filming activities will not create conflicts and added that the $200 fee may not be an adequate return to taxpayers for use of public lands (E&E Daily, March 13).

While proponents of the Sportsmen’s Act are confident that it will pass before the end of the 114th Congress, it hasn’t been marked up yet by Energy and Natural Resources Committee members. The committee is preoccupied with assembling a comprehensive energy package (see related story).

But Murkowski is still committed to rolling back the Obama administration’s regulations on small film crews. "It’s an issue that I’m continuing to raise," she said last week.

"Why should they tell you, ‘You can’t film over here?’ They say, ‘Well, you know we need to protect the habitat.’ Criminy," she added. "You’ve got a guy with a couple buddies and they’ve got tripods in their backpack and they’re hiking in. … That’s my beef."