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  • Writer's pictureAndre Watson

Can You Open a Business on Public Land?

by: Cathy Habas

Public land, such as state and national parks, might be very appealing to you as a business owner. If you own a fishing and kayaking rental business, it would be great to set up shop as close to the river or lake as possible. If you’re a wedding planner, your clients may think a state or national park would make a gorgeous backdrop for their ceremony. Or maybe you would like to make money as a local trail guide.

These are attractive business schemes, but are they truly feasible? Can you really do business on public land, or should you just stick to private real estate? If you’re not looking to set up something permanent, like an actual building, you can actually do a fair amount of business on public land. A lot depends on the rules and regulations of the state or governing body that manages the land, but there are some general guidelines you can learn from.

Commercial land use takes many shapes, but the guiding principle about whether you can do business on public property seems to be transience. In other words, the less of a footprint you leave behind, the more likely you are to be allowed to do business, or at least to not have to pay an arm and a leg to do so.

Here are some common examples of commercial use of public lands:

  • Livestock Grazing. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), there are approximately 18,000 outstanding permits pertaining to livestock grazing. Although the land is owned and managed by the federal government, private individuals can obtain permits to graze their herds on this land. Cattle drives are an associated form of commercial use.

  • It should come as no surprise that many public parks are often chosen as the perfect filming location for T.V. shows and movies. Particularly out west, public lands offer a realistic backdrop for films set in the pioneer days. Filmmakers need a permit to shoot video on public land, and permits are required for some still photography sessions as well. An official representative typically monitors filming to ensure that the land is not harmed.

  • Being a Guide or Conducting Tours. Whether you are guiding a trail on foot, horseback, by jeep or by bike, you should obtain a permit to do so. Hunting guides and fishing guides may also be required to have a permit, depending on the rules and regulations of the state or managing organization.

  • Conducting Research. The rules on research vary, but in general if you have a client who is paying for the research that you want to carry out on public land, you’ll need a permit.

  • Professional Dog Training. If you’re a professional dog trainer and have a client whose dog is learning to retrieve game, for example, public land is a sensible place to practice. However, this constitutes commercial use, and you’ll most likely need a permit.

  • Renting Out Boats or Other Equipment. If you are paid to haul boats to and from access points on lakes and rivers, you give boating demonstrations or any other part of your rental business is carried out on site, you may need a permit.

Some use of public land is considered non-commercial but still has its own set of regulations. You will still need to register for a permit if you want to do the following on public land:

  • Hold a Competition. Any kind of competition, whether it be a sanctioned fishing competition or a cross-country race, will require a permit. To qualify as a competition, participants usually have to register or complete an application for the event, but this may vary depending on the location.

  • Hold a Non-competitive Event. For any other event that you want to host, whether it be a fundraiser, wedding or large family gathering, you should check to see if you need a permit. Chances are you’ll need one if there will be any kind of vendors at the event or if you wish to reserve a particular area for your event.

  • Vend Food, Drinks or Items. Yes, you still make a profit when vending food, drink or items on public land, but the “powers that be” put vending into its own special category, complete with its own special permits.

A good rule of thumb is that if your motivation for going to a public park is related in any way to your business, you’ll probably need a permit. It doesn’t hurt to check, and it sure beats getting fined. Expect to pay a fee when registering for your permit. Fees might be paid per year or per day, or in the case of trail guides and events, per participant. Vendors typically have to pay a certain percentage of the day’s earnings, and filmmakers and photographers are often charged by the hour.

Don’t expect to be able to set up anything permanent on public land, but if the nature of your business means you can come and go and leave little trace behind, you should be in the clear to do business on public land. Just be sure to follow the rules, get a permit and treat the public land with respect.

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