EVERY year, film crews roll into national parks. They set up actors and products beneath towering redwoods or sandstone buttes and use the scenery to sell cars, beer or a blockbuster movie.
Hollywood makes millions of dollars from these images, ad agencies get rich and actors get paid. With no costly sets, nature provides a dirt-cheap stage for motion pictures, TV shows, commercials and documentaries.
Although cash-hungry parks struggle to keep restrooms open and trails tended, so far they have been unable to tap into the wealth of commercial film production occurring within their gates.
Film producers pay minimal fees to rent the nation's natural treasures because the National Park Service charges rates below market value and less than fees assessed on other public lands.
The result, Park Service officials acknowledge, is that their agency could be losing out on at least $1 million in annual revenue. The agency's annual budget is $2.6 billion.
Conservationists and even the motion picture industry acknowledge a need for reform, but their voices have not prevailed.
"Nobody cares enough to push this through," said Ron Tipton, senior vice president for programs at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Assn. "I'm not suggesting that they're being nefarious or dishonest. It's just a matter of priorities."
But Congress once cared. It adopted a law five years ago authorizing the Interior and Agriculture departments to charge daily fees for film shoots. But since then, nothing has changed. The Park Service blames bureaucratic inertia for the delay.
Now the Government Accountability Office wants to know what went wrong. Congress' nonpartisan watchdog is investigating and expects to release its findings next month.
"We are all extremely frustrated that this has taken this long," said Lee Dickinson, who oversees commercial filming permits and other special park uses for the National Park Service. "And since I'm the point person, I'm beyond frustrated."
Meanwhile, the federal government has developed new ways to generate revenue from public lands. It charges recreational users for hikes, bird watching or picnics.
In November, President Bush signed the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, extending authority to the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service to charge people visiting public lands improved with toilets, picnic tables and trash cans.
Although the Park Service charges for filming applications, cleanup and site restoration, as well as the use of rangers and others to monitor filming, it does not assess fees for each day that film crews work. Other agencies typically charge daily fees of $100 to $600 or more.
Across California and the West last year, Ford filmed in Joshua Tree National Park, Nissan worked at Olympic National Park, and Chrysler, Mercedes and Lexus, among others, filmed at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. At Death Valley National Park, business manager Dave Rhinehart estimates companies do 20 to 30 car shoots each year.
The Congressional Budget Office's Deborah Reis reported in 1999 that the Forest Service processed 1,500 to 2,000 permits annually for up to $600 in daily fees, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management processed 300 to 400 applications annually for up to $750 daily.
The National Park Service could earn from $1 million annually but probably no more than "a few million dollars a year," by charging daily fees on its 900 film permits per year, the office reported.
Production crews have enjoyed cut-rate fees since 1948, when Congress forbade the National Park Service from assessing daily fees on commercial shoots.
But five years ago Congress passed a bill that gave the Agriculture and Interior departments authority to collect daily filming fees. The bill's author, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), said it was wrong for production companies to profit at taxpayer expense.
The Motion Picture Assn. of America endorsed the bill as a method to establish uniform fees and engender goodwill with park superintendents.
Since then, the federal government has not implemented the law. Dickinson said the Park Service awaits guidance from the Justice Department, which has concerns that the regulations might infringe on the 1st Amendment by giving government officials too much control over filmmakers. The Justice Department did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Environmentalists question the need to make money off filming in the national parks.
Sierra Club legislative director Debbie Sease says the filming controversy illustrates a wider problem.
"What we really need to do is get a secure source of funds for the Park Service so they're not put in a position to rely on funds from these other sources," she said.
"Why should we even be filming in parks?" asked Scott Silver, executive director of the Oregon-based advocacy group Wild Wilderness, a critic of private enterprise on public land. "I think it's within the federal government's rights to say we don't allow advertisements in parks at all."
Yet advocates of filming in the parks say companies and the Interior Department benefit from picture shoots. They say revenues from companies reduce the burden on taxpayers and give corporations a chance to show they're good citizens while exposure in mass media increases public support for the parks.
At Film Permits Unlimited Inc. in Woodland Hills, which pulls 1,200 permits per month for production companies nationwide, office manager John Wheeler said daily film fees in national parks would probably not deter the 10 to 15 park shoots the company arranges each month.
"It's not that big a deal," he says.
But Jay Kuhnie, director of Chrysler-Jeep communications at the Chrysler Group, warned "we're in the business to find the most efficient way to do things
.If the parks became more expensive than other locations, then we would stay away from the parks."