USDA Forest Service,
Lands and Realty Staff
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC 20250-1124
Phone: (202) 205-1248
Special Uses–Applying for a Permit
Noncommercial Group Uses
NONCOMMERCIAL GROUP USES REGULATIONS FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Who has to get a permit under the regulation?
The regulation requires a permit for noncommercial group uses of National Forest System lands. Under the
regulation, a group use is an activity that involves a group of 75 or more people, either as participants or
spectators. Noncommercial is any use or activity where an entry or participation fee is not charged, and the
primary purpose is not the sale of a goods or service. Some examples of noncommercial group uses are weddings,
church services, endurance rides, regattas, camping trips, hikes, music festivals, rallies, graduations, and
Why are permits required for noncommercial group uses?
As a steward of the National Forests, the Forest Service has a duty to minimize resource impacts on
National Forest System lands. Large group gatherings in the National Forests have significant adverse impacts on
Forest resources, public health and safety, and the agency s ability to allocate space in the face of increasing
constraints on the use of National Forest System land. A permit system allows the agency to address these
problems more expeditiously, more effectively, and more equitably. These adverse impacts include:
The spread of disease;
Pollution from inadequate site clean-up;
Soil compaction from inadequate site restoration;
Damage to archaeological sites; and
Why do you define a group as 75 or more people? Why not 15 or 50?
Originally, the regulation proposed that a permit be required for 25 or more people.
Based on public comment and the Forest Service s experience with all types of noncommercial group uses on
National Forest System lands, particularly with respect to resource impacts associated with these uses, it was
determined that a 25-person threshold is too low and that 75 people is a more appropriate threshold for
applicability of the regulation.
While any numerical threshold is arbitrary in that 25 people could have more impact than
75, depending on the type of activity and the characteristics of the site, a numerical threshold is the fairest
and most objective standard for applicability of the rule. In addition, groups with 75 or more people tend to
have a greater impact on National Forest System lands than smaller groups.
By requiring permits for noncommercial group uses, is the Forest Service infringing on
the constitutional rights of freedom of speech, assembly, and religion?
No. The Supreme Court has held that the government may enforce reasonable time, place,
and manner restrictions on First Amendment activities as long as the restrictions are justified without regard to
the content of the regulated speech, they are narrowly tailored to further a significant government interest, and
they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of information.
Permits are constitutional restrictions of time, place, and manner where narrow,
objective standards guide the licensing authority. This rule ensures that authorization procedures for
noncommercial group uses comply with First Amendment requirements of freedom of speech, assembly, and religion.
The regulation does not single out expressive conduct or treat it differently from other types of activity. The
regulation established a single category, noncommercial group uses, and applies the same evaluation criteria to
all applications for noncommercial group uses regardless of whether they involve the expression of views. The
evaluation criteria are specific and content-neutral and regulate the time, place, and manner for the proposed
How is this regulation different from the earlier versions?
This regulation does not single out expressive conduct or treat it differently from other
types of activity. The evaluation criteria in this regulation do not give an authorized officer discretion to
deny an application based on the content of speech. Specifically, this rule:
Establishes a single category called noncommercial group uses.
Restricts the content of an application for noncommercial group uses to
information concerning time, place, and manner.
Applies the same evaluation criteria to all applications for noncommercial group
uses, regardless of whether they involve the expression of views.
Establishes specific, content-neutral evaluation criteria.
Provides that applications for noncommercial group uses will be granted or denied
within a short, specific timeframe.
Provides that if an application is denied and an alternative time, place, or
manner will allow the applicant to meet all the evaluation criteria, the authorized officer will offer that
Requires an authorized officer to explain in writing the reason for denial of an
application for a noncommercial group use.
Provides that a denial of an application for a noncommercial group use is
immediately subject to judicial review.
How does the rule work?
Under the rule, anyone seeking to conduct a noncommercial group activity on National
Forest System lands would have to apply for and receive a permit. The rule creates a presumption in favor of
granting a permit for noncommercial group uses. An application has to be granted if eight evaluation criteria are
met. These criteria are narrow and unrelated to the content of speech. They merely regulate the tune, place, and
manner for noncommercial group uses. These features of the rule are necessary to ensure compliance with First
Amendment requirements of freedom of speech, assembly, and religion.
What are the eight evaluation criteria?
Authorized officers will grant an application for a noncommercial group use if they
Authorization of the proposed activity. is not prohibited by the rules at 36 CFR
Part 261, Subpart A, by an order issued under the regulations at 36 CFR Part 261, Subpart B, or by federal,
state, or local law unrelated to the content of the expressive activity;
Authorization of the proposed activity is consistent or can be made consistent
with standards and guidelines in the applicable forest land and resource management plan required under the
National Forest Management Act and 36 CFR, Part 219;
The proposed activity does not materially impact the characteristics or functions
of the environmentally sensitive resources or lands identified in Forest Service Handbook 1909.15, chapter 30;
- The proposed activity will not delay, halt, or prevent administrative use of an area by the Forest
Service or other scheduled or existing uses or activities on National Forest System lands;
- The proposed activity does not violate state any local public health laws and regulations as applied to
the proposed site. Issues addressed by state and local public health laws and regulations as applied to the
proposed site include but are not limited to:
- The sufficiency of sanitation facilities;
- The sufficiency of waste-disposal facilities;
- The availability of sufficient potable drinking water;
- The risk of disease from the physical characteristics of the proposed site or natural conditions associated
with the proposed site; and
- The risk of contamination of the water supply.
- The proposed activity will not pose a substantial danger to public safety. Considerations of public safety
do not include concerns about possible reaction to the users identity or beliefs from non-members of the group
applying for a permit and are limited to the following:
- The potential for physical injury to other forest users from the proposed activity;
- The potential for physical injury to users from the physical characteristics of the proposed site or
natural conditions associated with the proposed site;
- The potential for physical injury to users from scheduled or existing uses or activities on National Forest
System land; and The adequacy of ingress and egress in case of an emergency;
- The proposed activity does not involve military or paramilitary training or exercises by private
organizations or individuals, unless such training or exercises are federally funded; and
- A person or persons 21 years of age or older have been designated to sign and do sign a permit on behalf of
Can the Forest Service deny a permit for noncommercial group uses under the regulation?
Yes, but the regulation establishes a presumption in favor of granting a permit for noncommercial group uses.
Under the regulation, applications must be granted or denied in. a short, specific timefrarne. Applications must
be submitted at least 72 hours in advance of a proposed activity and must be evaluated by the Forest Service
within 48 hours of receipt. Otherwise they are deemed granted. A permit can be denied only if it does not meet
the eight evaluation criteria.
Equally important, an authorized officer has to explain to the applicant in writing the reasons for the
denial. There has to be an adequate factual basis for the denial, and a record has to be developed to support the
reasons for the denial. If an. application is denied, and an alternative time, place, or manner will allow the
applicant to meet all the evaluation criteria, the authorized officer will offer that alternative.
- Do applicants for a noncommercial group use have to sign a permit?
Yes, applicants for any noncommercial group use have to designate at least one person 21 years of age or older
to sign a permit and that person or persons have to sign the permit. This feature is essential for effective
permit administration. The agency must have someone to contact on behalf of the group.
In addition, the signature gives the permit legal effect A person who signs a permit for a noncommercial group
use acts as an agent for the group and subjects the group to the terms and conditions of the permit. A person who
signs a permit does not, however, assume personal responsibility for the group's actions.
- Is a significant amount of time necessary to comply with the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)in processing applications for noncommercial group uses under this regulation?
No. Under the regulations, permits for noncommercial group uses are categorically excluded in the absence of
extraordinary circumstances (Forest Service Handbook 1909.15, Chapter 30) from documentation in an environmental
assessment or an environmental impact statement. Consideration of extraordinary circumstances is incorporated in
the rule as an evaluation criterion. Thus, the processing of applications for noncommercial group uses can be
expedited to comply with constitutional requirements for a short, specific timeframe for processing permit
applications for expressive activities.
- By allowing authorized officers to assess specific public health and safety criteria before
issuing a permit, is the Forest Service ensuring the health and safety of group participants and other forest
No. Rather than ensuring public health and safety, the rule merely allows an authorized officer to deny a permit
based on specific considerations of public health and safety associated with the proposed activity. These
criteria must be narrow in order to comply with First Amendment requirements. The Forest Service cannot guarantee
public health and safety. However, with the assistance of state and local officials, the agency can and does
address health and safety concerns affecting groups and other forest visitors.
- Does the regulation require that applicants for a noncommercial group use permit obtain
bonding or insurance?
No. Noncommercial group uses involve or potentially involve First Amendment activities. Requiring bonding or
insurance as a precondition to the issuance of a permit for expressive conduct could be construed as an undue
burden on the exercise of First Amendment tights. In other words, requiring an applicant to obtain bonding or
insurance before a permit is issued could be seen as putting a price tag on speech in violation of the United
Are noncommercial group uses subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
No. Generally, Title VI would not apply to noncommercial group use of National Forest System lands. There is
no federal financial assistance as defined under implementing regulations because the use is casual and
transient. In addition, Title VI only applies when federal funding is given to a non-federal entity, which in
turn provides financial assistance to the ultimate beneficiary. Title VI does not apply to noncommercial group
uses because the permit holder is the ultimate beneficiary of the permit.
- Are Native American large group gatherings subject to the rule?
Yes. A permit is required for all noncommercial groups of 75 or more, including groups of 75 or more Native
Americans, who seek to engage in traditional ceremonies and activities on the National Forests. The regulation
ensures that authorization procedures for noncommercial group uses, including religious gatherings, comply with
First Amendment requirements of freedom of speech, assembly, and religion.
- What are the differences between the Forest Service and the National Park Service (NPS) permit systems for noncommercial group uses?
NPS, like the Forest Service, requires permits for noncommercial group uses. NPS has two permitting systems,
one for the National Capital Region and one for the rest of the units in the National Park System. The former
applies to specific sites and is more narrow in scope than the latter. The Forest Service rule applies to the
entire National Forest System.
- Are large group gatherings an appropriate use of National Forests?
Yes, they are an appropriate use, but it is important to. minimize impacts on the environment and to ensure
the health and safety of all forest visitors. The regulation accommodates these concerns by authorizing
noncommercial group uses subject to constitutional time, place, and manner restrictions.
- How does the Forest Service manage gatherings of large groups?
The Forest Service:
Works with sponsors of the group to ensure adequate protection of the environment and to address health and
safety concerns affecting group members and other forest visitors.
Assembles an incident command team, if it is a particularly large group, consisting of resource managers and
representatives from law enforcement, safety and health, and public affairs.
Keeps the public informed.
Provides direction on traffic management to minimize the environmental impacts associated with parking large
numbers of vehicles.
Provides guidance to reduce displacement of wildlife, to ensure provision of adequate sanitation, and to maintain
Enforces laws and assists state and local law enforcement officials if criminal violations occur.
What is the cost to the government to administer noncommercial group uses?
The Forest Service estimates that it costs at least $700,000 per year to administer group uses. This figure does
not include law enforcement costs.
Why does the government pay for administrative costs associated with group uses?
The Federal government, along with state and local agencies, bear these costs because they are obligated to
protect the National Forest environment and are concerned about the health and safety of forest visitors. In
addition, shifting law enforcement costs to applicants for noncommercial group events, which involve or
potentially involve expressive conduct, could be construed as an undue burden on the exercise of First Amendment
How do local communities feel about large groups gathering on nearby National Forests?
The reaction in local communities is mixed. On one hand, large groups can present small communities with traffic
and law enforcement problems. On the other hand, members of large groups often purchase goods and services, such
as gas and groceries, providing a boost to the local economy. The Forest Service continues to play a strong role
in working with local communities when affected by a sudden influx of national forest visitors.
Who are the Rainbow Family?
The Rainbow Family is one of many groups that use National Forest System lands. They are a loosely knit
association of persons who organize gatherings in the national forests for their stated purpose to celebrate
life, worship, express ideas and values, and associate with others who share their beliefs. The largest of these
meetings is the Rainbow Family National Gathering, which is held annually in the summer and has attracted as many
as 20,000 people from across the nation.
- Does the regulation single out the Rainbow Family?
The regulation does not single out any particular group. Approximately 1800 groups received permits to conduct
non-expressive activities on National Forest System lands in 1992. Because of the court rulings, the agency has
been unable to regulate activities involving the expression of views. The regulation is needed to treat all
groups consistently and fairly.
Does the Rainbow Family gather only on National Forests?
Since their inception in 1971, the largest Rainbow Family gatherings have been on National Forest System lands.
The Rainbow Family has held gatherings on BLM and other private and state public lands.