Running a workshop legally

Please add to this guide! This is a wiki, any members can edit the information on this page by clicking edit at the bottom of the post.

We wanted to create this guide to help as many workshop instructors get legal as possible. When you don’t have a permit you undermining everyone else that does have a permit, and most importantly you are putting yourself (or your company) under major legal risks. If something were to happen on your workshop, let’s say a client is injured and they decide to sue you. Now when your general liability insurance underwriter starts looking at your operation, most likely they will ask you for a copy of your permit, when you can’t provide it they will deny your claim, and you are bankrupt.

On top of this, it makes photographers as a whole look bad. Photographers tend to get a bad rap in National Parks, etc. because of photographers not following the rules. If you are caught, there will be a large fine, you will be banned from at least that National Park for a number of years. Not only will you not be able to conduct business in that park for a very long time, but your reputation will be tarnished for even longer.

Where to apply for permits

Typically you can easily look this information up online by googling the name of where you need a permit and their term for permits. In national parks it is called a Commercial Use Authorization (CUA), on BLM lands it is called a Special Recreation Permit, and on national forest it is usually called a Special Use Permit. Occasionally you will not find information on their website and you will need to call the office directly and ask for someone who handles commercial use permits.

In general, the National Parks are the easiest to work with, their applications are fairly similar and typically very short and simple. The fees and rules will vary widely though, expect to pay around $300 for the year in one park. The BLM is a little more challenging to work with, the applications can be very long and in-depth. In general they are easy to work with. The National Forest is by far the most challenging to work with. You will likely waste hours calling around and getting thrown around to different ranger stations. they are often not equipped to handle this type of permit, or sometimes don’t even have the budget to give them out.

Most permits applications are easy to find. You can find permits for National Parks by google searching for the name of the park and CUA (Commercial Use Authorization). You can find permits for BLM by searching for the name of the park and SRP (Special Recreation Permit). National Forests are much more challenging, you will first start by looking at this map to find out which ranger district you will be operating in. Then you will contact that district and they will likely throw you around to various people before getting an answer. State Parks vary widely and can be very easy or very hard to work with. Please list any challenging areas below areas that you have experience with. No need to list easy National Parks, etc.

  • San Juan National Forest in Colorado - I was able to obtain a ‘Temporary Special Use Permit for Outfitting and Guiding’ by contacting Brian Boden of the GMUG USFS 970-240-5425
  • Bisti Badlands - Contact Stan Allison with the BLM for an SRP Permit 505-564-7600
  • Anza Borrego State Park - Contact Norb Ruhmke or 760-767-4037 for a Special Event Permit

General Liability Insurance

All permit applications require this level of insurance, typically between 1-2 million dollars in coverage. This is what covers your business when things go awry on your workshop. If a client decides to sue your company or you cause damage to the land you are using, this insurance has your back. It is getting harder to find this insurance, when shopping around be very clear and honest about what you will be doing on your workshops, especially if going international.

Commercial Auto Insurance

If you plan to drive around clients in your own vehicle you may be surprised that you need commercial automotive insurance, you are driving them around for a fee after all. If you were to get into an accident during a workshop you could be opening yourself up to major liability.

Commercial auto does cost a bit more, but it is usually not outrageous. Call around to get different quotes and tell them clearly what you are planning on doing. Not all insurance companies will give you commercial auto insurance.

Please list which companies you have had success with:

  • Progressive - possibly the most commercial friendly company, but they will raise your rates every year.
  • Geico - I’ve heard good things, anyone have personal experience?

Stay away from:

  • State Farm (they dropped me as soon as the underwriters found out I wanted commercial insurance)

Some parks will request a Form E if you are planning on transporting clients which can be requested from the underwriter.

Recently some parks (Grand Teton NP) require you to have commercial auto insurance even if you are not driving around clients! I would expect to see this spread to other parks as well in the future.

First aid and CPR Certifications

Almost every permit application requires that you have at least the basic first aid and cpr certification. You can find a list of classes on the Red Cross Website.

While First Aid/CPR is perfectly adequate for the permit, consider getting certified to be a Wilderness First Responder if you take people to even somewhat remote locations. Classes are available through NOLS and WMI, both are extremely good and will leave you well prepared for medical situations that arise in the field.

On a related note: some national parks are now requiring a food handling permit/certification (e.g., Servsafe Food Handlers Training) for guides who provide food for their tour guests.

Read the rules of the permit

Having a permit does not give you free reign of an entire park, you must be sure to read the rules. The permit will stipulate areas that can and cannot go to. For example; the Subway in Zion National Park is off limit to commercial groups because it is a protected wilderness, even if you obtain the day hiking permit you cannot take your group up there. There are also limits on group sizes, etc.

Leave No Trace

As a leader you should be familiar and practice Leave No Trace principles. It is also critically important to instill these values in your clients. It is never acceptable to allow a client to leave trash behind or destroy public lands in any way. It is your responsibility to ensure this does not happen.

Respect Private Property

It is never okay to trespass with your workshop group. You must get permission from the land owner prior to performing any activities on privately owned land.