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Navajo Photography Permits - Lessons Learned


© Joe Becker
© Joe Becker
I recently did a series of posts on the American Southwest for my blog. I finished the series with my story of obtaining photography permits from the Navajo Nation. Sometime in the past, I'm not exactly sure when or how, I learned that photo permits are required for commercial photography in Navajo Parks. So when I started planning for a trip to the Southwest that was to include visits to three Navajo parks: Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and Antelope Canyon, I started an internet search to determine if a permit was truly needed, and if so, what was the cost. My whole experience turned out to be an adventure in bureaucracy.

It is important to remember that all officially recognized Indian reservations in the United States are recognized by the federal government as "domestic dependent nations." This status allows each tribe to independently have its own laws and regulations. I am quite familiar with this. Here in Washington State where I live, there are 29 federally recognized Tribal nations. Three tribes are good clients of the environmental company I work for, Robinson Noble, and several other Tribes we work for on an occasional basis. Working with Tribal nations on a regular basis, I was inclined to pay for a permit for the Navajos. Little did I know, however, how involved the process would be.

© Joe Becker
© Joe Becker
One of the first things I learned in my internet search is that most photographers do not get permits. They are only required for commercial photography, and many landscape photographers don't bother because of lack of enforcement and cost. If you are not planning on selling any photography from the parks, you do not need a permit. Chances are you will not see any Navajo rangers or police, but if you do, you may be asked to show your permit if you have expensive looking equipment even if not shooting commercially. And, of course, there is the question of what is commercial. You may not consider yourself as a commercial photographer if you only sell an occasional fine-art print, but based on my dealings with the Navajo Parks Department, they would consider you as one. On their website, on the Monument Valley page, not on the main permits page like you might expect, it states permits are required for "filming and photography undertaken for commercial purposes, i.e. for financial gain or public display and exhibition." If you have any intent to possibly sell images taken in a Navajo park, legally you need a permit.

I also learned that finding the exact rules for photography in Navajo parks is next to impossible. The Navajo Parks website is not very useful. If you go their website, there is a top menu link to "Permits and Services," and hitting that link takes you to a page that largely talks about hiking and camping (permits also needed). However, on the side menu, there is a link titled "Filming and Photography Permit for Tribal Park Area." This link does take you to a permit form, but it is for filming, not still photography. There is a separate permit form for still photography. I only found this application form by doing a Google search for "Navajo photography permit.? While researching for this article, I did actually find links to the still photography permit on the Navajo Parks website; there are links on some of the individual park pages, not at the main permits page.

If you look at the two permit forms, you will notice that the still photography form is much simpler (which is nice), but you will also notice that it does not specify what the fees are like the filming form does. After some searching, I found this page on the Navajo Parks website that discusses fees for both still and video photography, though that page is also unclear as to what fees apply only to videography vs still photograph. However, based on that fee list, I determined that there a fee of $10 per day per person and a $50 processing fee. It seemed fairly reasonable. (Later I learned the daily per person fee is the park entrance fee and varies between parks.)

© Joe Becker
© Joe Becker
Consequently, I prepared an application, selecting the three full days I planned to photograph in Monument Valley, at Canyon de Chelly, and in Antelope Canyon (which is in the Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park). At the time, I assumed that one processing fee was required no matter how many parks were visited, but then I re-considered the statement at the top of the application which says, "Submit application and applicable fees to the address at each location photography is to take place." Did that mean, I asked myself, that I needed to send three separate applications, each with the $50 processing fee? Suddenly, the fees seemed less reasonable.

To make sure I did things correctly, I called the Navajo Parks office in Window Rock. On my initial call, made in late afternoon, but definitely before 5 pm, the phone went unanswered. I tried again in the morning and got through. They confirmed that a separate application and a separate processing fee is required for each park.

Consequently, I filled out three applications and sent them in to the three parks, each with a $60 check to cover the processing fees plus one day photographing in each park. About a week later, I received a phone call from the Lake Powell Navajo Park. They said my application had been received; however, they do not accept personal checks. Instead, I would need to send a money order or cashier?s check, and it should be for $50, not the $60 I'd sent. The daily fee was only $8, not $10, and that should be paid when arriving. Further, on the application, I needed to not only state the day I would be photographing, but the hours I'd be there and the name of the tour operator I would be using (visits to Antelope Canyon and other slot canyons on the Navajo Reservation require a tour guide for non-Navajos).

So my next step was to set up reservations with a tour operator for visiting Antelope Canyon. After researching the various Antelope Canyon tour operators and didn't see much difference between them in terms of price or service. All offered a photo tour, where tripods are allowed, for about $80 or a standard tour for about $30. The photo tours were all about 1/2 longer than the standard tour. The number of people per tour are all large, and the photo tours occur concurrently with the standard tours, so at any time there could be hundreds of people in the slot canyon. It sounds like a real zoo, but I'd never been there, so though I was tempted to forget the whole thing, I decide I need to go at least once.

© Joe Becker
© Joe Becker
I eventually chose Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours solely because they are located at the entrance to the canyon, not in Page like the others. I chose them because I wanted to do Lower Antelope Canyon in the early morning, then Upper Antelope Canyon later the same morning. I called them to see if I could book my wife on the photo tour, so we could tour together, even though she would not have a camera. The answer was no, only photographers are allowed on the photo tour because allowing non-photographing spouses on the tour would deny some worthy photographer of a spot. They said to book my wife on a standard tour, and she would have to wait a half hour after her tour ended for me to come out. I went ahead and booked us on separate tours. Luckily, they did not require a deposit.

Then I investigated Kens Tours, which is the only company that conducts lower Antelope Canyon tours. Photo "tours" there cost $50. However, there is no tour involved, you get a pass that allows you in the slot canyon by yourself for 2 hours. Again, non-photographer spouses must go on a standard tour ($28, one hour long). Reservations are not required.

Now armed with a reservation for Upper Antelope and a plan for Lower Antelope, I filled out a new photo permit application, bought a money order for $50, and sent if off again. Now, several days after the call from the Lake Powell Navajo Park, I was beginning to wonder about Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly. Did they also not accept personal checks? Would they need specific times? I was starting to get a bit worried about timing; this was only a couple of weeks before we were to leave on our trip.

I decided I needed to call park and find out. Again, I tried calling in the afternoon, but the phones went unanswered. So the next morning I tried again and reached the office at Monument Valley. The conversation was a bit surreal; it went something like this:

Me: Hi, my name is Joe Becker. I recently sent in an application for a photography permit and I had some questions.

Them: Sure, how can I help?

Me: A few days ago I talked with the folks down at the Lake Powell Tribal Park. I had sent them an application as well. They said they do not accept personal checks for the fee and that I needed to send a money order. With my application to Monument Valley, I had also paid with a personal check. Do you have the same policy of not accepting personal checks?

Them: Yes, cashier's checks or money orders only. You said your name is Joe Becker?

Me: Yes.

Them: Oh, yes, we received your application. I've sent it down to Window Rock for processing.

Me: What did you do with the check?

Them: I cashed it.

Me: You cashed it? I thought you didn't accept personal checks?

Them: We don't. You're check's not going to bounce is it? I'll be in trouble if you don't have any money in the bank.

Me: No it's fine. I have plenty of money in the bank. But, I'm a bit confused. You cashed my check, so I don't need to send a money order?

Them: You will need to talk to Jane (not her real name) in Window Rock about that. You sure your check was good?

I decided not to call Window Rock; she said she cashed the check. That should be good enough, right?

Instead, I called Canyon de Chelly. The phone call was answered by someone at the campground, which I thought was a bit odd. I asked about the application and whether personal checks were okay. They told me to call the main Park's office in Window Rock, and I should also call the National Park Service, they'd want a permit as well (Canyon de Chelly is co-managed by the Park Service and Navajo Parks). I knew this to be wrong. I know the rules for national parks and a permit is not needed for still photography without models or special equipment.

But, in the end, I did call Window Rock after all. However, my conversation with the folks at Window Rock was limited to my application about Canyon de Chelly. And yes, they do not accept personal checks. I was to send a new application and a money order. By the way, what should they do with the check I had sent? Should they send it back to me or shred it? I asked them to shred it. Later that day, I sent a new application with a money order in for Canyon de Chelly.

© Joe Becker
© Joe Becker
About a week later, I received my permit in the mail for Lake Powell Navajo Park (Antelope Canyon), and several days later received an email with a pdf copy of my permit for Canyon de Chelly. But nothing showed up for Monument Valley. Finally, just a couple of days before I was to leave on my trip, I emailed "Jane" at Window Rock, saying I was leaving in two days and asking about the status of my application. She emailed me back the next day, asking if I had submitted an application, saying my name was not familiar, and if not, email one to her as quick as possible.

I immediately emailed back with the story of my application, about how I had talked to the Monument Valley office, and that they told me my check had been cashed. But in case she still couldn't find my application, I attached a new one with the email. I also attached a pdf of the cancelled check.

She responded four days later. By this time, I was camping in Arches National Park with plans to drive to Monument Valley the next day, and I had little hope of getting a permit. However, around lunchtime we drove into Moab so I could again check my email. Sitting on a nice shady bench outside the visitor center, using their free WiFi, I finally found the response from Jane. In the email she said the check I had previously sent had been shredded, so I would have to pay the application fee once I got to Monument Valley. Attached was an invoice for $70 ($20 entrance fee and the $50 processing fee). Also attached was the permit.

I wrote her back, thanking her for the permit, but also explaining once again that the check had been cashed. I explained how I had also sent an application for Canyon de Chelly, and that was the check she had shredded. She emailed back an hour later, simply stating that the check attached to the application sent to Window Rock had been shredded.

So obviously there was some confusion, but at least I had the permit, though it was unsigned. We drove to Monument Valley the next day, arriving late in the afternoon. The park office was closed. The following day, the day my permit was good for, I got up early and took sunrise photos. My wife and I then drove the scenic drive, where I took more photos. Around noon, we drove back to the hotel and visitor center. The park office was open. I talked to the same woman I had talked to on the phone (the one who had cashed the check) several weeks before. She had no memory of the phone call or of cashing the check. She did have a copy of my permit and wanted payment. I gave her the whole story, and showed her a pdf copy of the cancelled check on my smart phone. She accepted that as proof I had paid, and officially signed the permit.

The three permits were quite different:

  • Canyon de Chelly - the permit is simply a copy of my application signed the park manager with an attached receipt for the payment.
  • Monument Valley - the permit is a single page of Navajo Parks letterhead, signed both by me and a park official, allowing photography on one specifically stated day subject to 17 different conditions, five of which were marked as not applicable. One of the non-applicable conditions was the requirement to have a certificate of liability insurance naming the Navajo Nation and the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park as additional insureds.
  • Lake Powell Navajo Park - the permit is four pages long. The first page gives the date of the permit, the times of my scheduled Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon tours, states an $8 balance was due (the entrance fee), and says liability insurance is required. The second page was signed by the park manager and includes the statement that any photography that exceeds 8 hours will be considered as part of an extra day. The final two pages are a listing of 24 extra conditions, including the need to have the Navajo Nation as an additional insured on my general liability insurance policy.

© Joe Becker
© Joe Becker
I should also note that one the conditions on both the Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon allows the Navajo Nation free use of the photographs. Specifically, the Monument Valley permit states: "you agree to provide final finished project products (filming and photographs) to the Navajo Nation." The Antelope Canyon permit is a bit more specific. It states "the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department reserves the right to use any image, photograph or video, obtained from Navajo Nation park lands without recompense to the photographer for marketing, promotion, advertising or informational purposes whether such image is obtained for personal or commercial purposes and where such image is displayed or exhibited in a public forum such as the internet or broadcast."

After this whole adventure in Navajo permits, how did the photography turn out? I'm very happy with my results from Monument Valley. My favorite shots from Canyon de Chelly were taken from the rim, where I doubt a permit is actually needed. However, I do have a few good images from inside the canyon were a permit is definitely required (at least if you follow the rules). And Antelope Canyon? We ended up not going. It rained on the day of my permit, and I thought that exploring a slot canyon in rain was a foolish thing to do. Though I do have some good images from the trip, I doubt I will ever earn my permit fees back in image sales or licensing. But if I do, I will do so legally.

During this whole process, I was told several times to carry the permits with me when photographing in the parks and to show them to any ranger or police officer that asks. During my days in Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly, I did not see a single ranger or police officer and was never asked to show my permits.

In hindsight, I wonder if the whole thing was worth it, though it makes an interesting story. In summary, here's what I learned about Navajo Parks photo permits:

  1. If you are only photographing for personal enjoyment, you do not need a permit.
  2. If you are photographing commercially, including just having the intent to possibly sell a fine-art photograph, you legally need the permit.
  3. A separate application and permit is needed for each park.
  4. Each application requires a $50 processing fee, payable with a cashier?s check or money order (personal checks are not accepted). The daily fee required is the park entrance fee and can be paid at the individual parks rather than with the application.
  5. You probably need general liability insurance (if you are shooting commercially, you should have it anyway).
  6. If going to Antelope Canyon or any of the other slot canyons on Navajo land near Page, Arizona, you need to specifically state on your application the dates, times, and tour companies you will be using.
  7. It's best to send your applications in at least a month prior to your trip.
  8. Carry your permit with you when photographing.

If you decide you need a permit, good luck. May your adventures with the Navajo Parks Department be less complicated than mine.

About the Author

Joe Becker is a freelance photographer based in Tacoma, Washington. His work has recently been published by Northwest Travel magazine and Wild West magazine. He is the author of the ebook Scenic Seattle, the Best Shots ? Best Spots Guide to Photographing the Emerald City. You can see more of his images at his website seldomseenphoto.com and on his blog joebeckerphoto.wordpress.

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