Commercial Use Authorization Plan

Visitors at Artist Point
Visitors enjoy the view at Artist Point

NPS/Jim Peaco


Established by an Act of Congress on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park encompasses 2.2 million acres in adjacent areas of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Yellowstone hosts over 3 million visitors annually, including 194,000 winter visitors. Commercial visitor services are an important aspect of park operations, visitor experience, and preservation and conservation of park resources and values. The impact of park commercial services on the regional economy exceeds $500 million annually. The 2011 Yellowstone National Park Visitor Survey conducted by the University of Idaho found an average expenditure of $382 per group inside the park and $1,111 outside the park.

More than 280 Commercial Use Authorizations (CUAs) currently operate in the park with annual gross receipts exceeding $7 million. The authorizations allow activities and services year-round. Except for the road from the North Entrance to the Northeast Entrance, the park’s 370 miles of paved roads are only open to oversnow vehicles from November to April.


36 CFR Section 5.3 states, “Engaging in or soliciting any business in park areas, except in accordance with the provisions of a permit, contract, or other written agreement with the United States, except as specifically authorized under special regulations applicable to a park area, is prohibited.”

CUAs, a type of permit, fall under the authority of Section 418 of the National Park Service Concession Management Improvement Act of 1998 (16 U.S.C 5966 Public Law 105-81). The section authorizes the National Park Service to issue CUAs to individuals, corporations, and other entities to provide commercial services to park visitors in limited circumstances. These authorizations are not concessions contracts. There are no implementing regulations for CUAs.

In November, 2005, the NPS Director issued Interim Guidelines for Commercial Use Authorizations. On November 12, 2015, the NPS Director issued a supplement to the Interim Guidelines regarding Public Law 105-391, requiring the National Park Service (NPS) to collect a reasonable fee for CUAs. The revised October, 2016 Yellowstone National Park CUA plan incorporates the guidelines from this supplement.

About CUAs

  • Services authorized must have minimal impact on park resources and values and be consistent with the purpose for which the park was established and with all applicable management plans, park policies, and regulations.
  • The Superintendent may not issue more CUAs for any activity than are consistent with the preservation and management of park resources and values.
  • The Superintendent may terminate a CUA at any time.
  • Some CUAs are issued for “in-park services.” In-park services originate in the park and are provided solely within the park’s boundaries They may not have annual gross receipts of more than $25,000.
  • Other CUAs are issued for “out-of-park services.” Out-of-park services originate and terminate outside of park boundaries, and the use of park area resources is incidental. All aspects of the business (such as marketing,
  • advertising, exchange of money, etc.) must take place outside the park. There is no limit on annual gross receipts.
  • CUA holders may not construct any temporary or permanent structures in the park.
  • Persons seeking a CUA are not precluded from also submitting proposals for concessions contracts.
  • CUAs may not have a term of more than two years.
  • Businesses that hold a CUA do not a have a preferential right of renewal.
  • CUA holders must conform to the terms and conditions of their authorizations, including operating plans.

CUA Program

The NPS uses CUAs to authorize businesses to provide suitable services that are consistent with the park’s mission. CUAs are managed and impacts are monitored to ensure protection of park resources. Comprehensive financial reporting requirements ensure cost recovery and the collection of reasonable fees.

Program Objectives

The NPS identified the following objectives for the CUA program:

  • The application process is open to new businesses.
  • Qualified businesses provide suitable services to visitors.
  • Operating plans for each service to minimize impacts to park resources.
  • NPS monitors resources and operators.
  • NPS enforces Federal regulations and operating plan provisions and requirements.
  • The number of CUAs is limited when necessary to protect park resources.
  • The fee schedule ensures the payment of a reasonable fee.
  • The authorization limits the liability of the Federal Government arising from any CUA.

Program Highlights

The operating plan for each service category is written to minimize resource impacts and optimize visitor safety and satisfaction. The plan includes methods to ensure minimal impacts through limits on group size, number of trips, etc. Operating plans are reviewed annually and updated as necessary. If, in the future, a service must be limited due to resource impacts, qualified applicants will be selected through a fair and unbiased process.

Authorization Service Categories

  • Biking - The CUA for Guided Biking Tours allows the CUA holder to conduct road-based bicycle trips and front country hiking on boardwalk areas and trails less than ½ mile from the road.
  • Day Hiking - The CUA for Guided Day Hiking Tours allows the CUA holder to conduct interpretative day hiking trips.
  • Skiing/Snowshoeing - The CUA for Guided Skiing and Snowshoeing Tours allows the CUA holder to conduct interpretative nordic skiing, telemark skiing and snowshoeing trips.
  • Motorized Boating - The CUA for Guided Motorized Boating Trips allows the CUA holder to conduct guided touring or fishing trips in larger motorized boats on Yellowstone Lake and/or Lewis Lake. Portions of Yellowstone Lake and all of Shoshone Lake are restricted to non-motorized boats.
  • Non-motorized Boating - The CUA for Guided Non-Motorized Boats Trips allows the CUA holder to conduct guided touring using dories, single or tandem kayaks, canoes and other small non-motorized vessels in Yellowstone, Lewis and Shoshone Lakes.
  • Overnight Backcountry - The CUA for Guided, Overnight Backcountry Trips allows the CUA holder to conduct overnight backcountry camping with an appropriate backcountry permit.
  • Painting and Photography - The CUA for Painting and Photography Services allows the CUA holder to conduct interpretative road based photography trips, instruction and/or painting instruction and services such as wedding and portrait photography[1]. Video filming is not allowed with this permit. Limited front country hiking on boardwalk areas and designated trails less than ½ mile from the road is permitted. Hiking to Trout Lake is also permitted.
  • Stream and Shoreline Fishing - The CUA for Commercial Stream and Shoreline Fishing Services allows the CUA holder to conduct guided walk and wade fishing trips in park streams and lakes. Float tubes use in lakes is permitted with this CUA. Use of boats (including pontoon boats) is not authorized and requires a separate boating CUA.
  • Road-based Tours, including Step-On Guide and Shuttle Service - The CUA for Guided Road-based Tours and Services allows the CUA holder to conduct vehicle tours, provide shuttle services, and act as a step-on guide, on paved park roads with visits to facilities and services in combination with short walks on boardwalks, front-country roads, and trails. Only businesses that are located in gateway communities[1] and use vehicles with a maximum capacity of 25 passengers are eligible for a road-based transportation CUA. All other businesses offering road-based transportation enter the park by paying the commercial tour fee. Step-on-Guides provide the same services from a visitor’s personal vehicle or from the vehicle of another commercial operator.
  • Towing – The CUA for Towing Services allows the CUA holder to provide towing services. Yellowstone Concession Contract YELL-004-008 is the primary towing provider and towing CUA holders are secondary towing providers. Towing CUA holders must follow the Towing Protocol attached to the CUA towing operating plan.
  • Other miscellaneous suitable visitor services – The CUA for other miscellaneous services allows the CUA holders to provide services (locksmith, RV and RV Appliance repair, water access, etc.) as approved by the Superintendent.
The CUA holder must ensure public health and safety and provide satisfactory services for park visitors. The CUA holder must provide all visitor services in a manner that is consistent with and supportive of the park’s interpretive themes, goals and objectives.

NPS staff monitors CUA operators to ensure adherence with the terms and conditions of the authorization and its operating plan. Staff will also monitor the impacts on cultural and natural resources, public safety, and public health. They may evaluate the CUA holder’s interpretive and informational services to ensure accuracy, quality, and appropriateness to park themes.

Application Period

  • The CUA application period is open to all applicants from October 1 to March 1 each year.
  • Beginning in 2017, the operating year for Commercial Use Authorizations will be January 1 to December 31.

Application Process

All applicants must submit a completed Commercial Use Authorization Application. Applicants for any service category must complete the Experience Questions, unless and the NPS has their Experience Questions on file from a previous application. The application fee must be submitted with the application. Complete application packages will be reviewed by park staff.

Upon review, applicants will be notified of their CUA approval. The Commercial Use Authorization will not be issued until all required documents have been received. All documents must be received by April 1st. Required documents are: proof of insurance, signed operating plans, acknowledgement of risk, and firearm policy. Guide lists can be submitted at a later date but must be submitted prior to operating.

NPS will issue a CUA to qualified applicants for a one-year term. Those who currently have a two-year CUA for December 14, 2015 to December 15, 2017, do not need to reapply for a one-year CUA until the open application period beginning October 1, 2017.

NPS will evaluate the application by the following criteria:

  • Operator qualifications to provide the service or services identified
  • Reduction or minimization of resource impacts
  • Visitor safety
  • Visitor experience
  • Interpretive knowledge
  • Managerial and operational experience
  • Administrative requirements (proof of insurance, acknowledgement of risk form, Internet site, brochures, advertisement, etc.)


Application Fee: A mandatory non-refundable fee of $300 for each service category must be submitted with the completed annual application. The CUA holder should deduct the application fee from the percentage of gross receipts (or management fee) before remitting at the end of the season.

Management Fee: A year-end annual report and management fee will be due by January 31. The NPS will provide a calculation tool to determine the percentages of gross receipts.

The percentage of gross receipts for Services will be calculated by:

  • Businesses with gross annual receipts of $250,000 or less will pay 3% of their gross receipts.
  • Businesses with gross annual receipts between $250,001 to 500,000 will pay 4% of their gross receipts on the amount exceeding $250,000 in addition to the prior amount.
  • Businesses with gross receipts over $500,000 will pay 5% of their gross receipts on the amount exceeding $500,000 in addition to the prior two amounts.

“Gross receipts’’ means the total amount of all revenues received from services offered within Yellowstone National Park, excluding services provided by other concessioners. Those services might include transportation, lodging and meals.

Services conducted outside the park are not included in the gross receipts when calculating the percentage to be assessed as a fee.

Accounting Records and Reports

The CUA holder shall maintain an accounting system under which accounts can be readily identified with its system of accounts classification. Such an accounting system shall be capable of providing the information required under this CUA. The NPS will provide blank, fillable annual reports.

  • By January 31, all CUA holders must submit an annual report for the preceding operating year.
  • A CUA holder whose annual gross receipts are $250,000 or more must use the accrual accounting method.
  • If annual gross receipts are less than $500,000, the annual financial statement may be prepared without an independent CPA.
  • If annual gross receipts are from $500,000 to $1,000,000, the annual financial statement must be reviewed by an independent CPA.
  • If annual receipts are more than $1 million, the annual financial statement must be audited by an independent CPA.

Closure of areas in the park because of fire, severe weather, or the need for resource protection, or other circumstances that may prevent a CUA holder from providing a service are not reimbursable events.


Authorization Compliance

CUA holders and their guides must comply with all requirements of the Commercial Use Authorization and its associated appendices or exhibits. Written approval from the Superintendent must be obtained prior to any deviation from these requirements.

A CUA may not be sold or transferred. If a change in ownership or majority stock holder occurs, the CUA will be considered terminated and the new operator/business must submit an application for a new authorization during the open CUA application season.

The CUA holder must provide the NPS with a Certificate of Liability Insurance with the required amount of coverage.

Reporting documents will, at a minimum, include a list of guides and dates of standard first-aid and CPR certification, monthly use reports, annual financial statements, rate sheets, and brochures.

The NPS is not responsible for lost business due to closures or a revocation of the authorization.

Program Compliance

NPS concessions management staff will review the CUA program annually and, if necessary, recommend changes to park management. If public health or safety concerns or imminent impacts to park resources are anticipated, changes may be implemented immediately.

NPS staff will monitor resources and evaluate CUA operations. Typically evaluations will consist of contact by a Concession Management Specialist, Park Ranger or other NPS representative at a campsite, trailhead, or on a park road. Evaluations may also be done by internet site reviews and visitor feedback.

The NPS will collect information to determine the need to limit use based on documented resource concerns or impacts. The NPS may also limit use of a specific activity by time period, area, and number of trips, user days, and/or party size. Instances of service interruption or area closure may occur due to weather closures, fire closures or resource protection.

Environmental National Policy Act Compliance

The plan has been excluded from further National Environmental Policy Act compliance by the following Categorical Exclusion as listed in NPS Director’s Order 12: “Incidental business permits (which have been replaced by commercial use authorizations) involving no construction or potential for new environmental impacts.”


Changes in the 2016 Commercial Use Authorization Plan

2013 2016
Two-year CUA One-year CUA
$300 annual "Administrative Fee" per service Non-Refundable $300 "Application Fee" per service

Management Fee based on % of gross receipts:

Businesses with gross receipts of $125,000 or less pay 2% of gross receipts.

Businesses with gross annual receipts of more than $125,000 but less than $250,000 pay 3% of gross receipts on the amount exceeding $125,000 in addition to the prior amount

Businesses with gross receipts of $250,000 or more but less than $500,000 pay 4% of gross receipts on the amount exceeding $250, 000 in addition to the two prior amounts.

Businesses with gross receipts of $500,000 or more pay 5% of their gross receipts on the amount exceeding $500,000 in addition to the prior three amounts

Management Fee based on % of gross receipts:

Businesses with gross receipts of $250,000 or less will pay 3% of their gross receipts.

Businesses with gross annual receipts between $250,001 to 500,000 will pay 4% of their gross receipts on the amount exceeding $250,000 in addition to the prior amount.

Businesses with gross receipts over $500,000 will pay 5% of their gross receipts on the amount exceeding $500,000 in addition to the prior two amounts.

Annual Administrative Fee plus Management Fee paid each year Application Fee will be credited against the Management Fee

Service Categories

Day hiking
Motorized boating
Non-motorized boating
Overnight backcountry trips
Painting & Photography
Stream and shoreline fishing
Road-based transportation
RV Appliance Repair
Water Access

Service Categories

Day hiking
Motorized boating
Non-motorized boating*
Overnight backcountry trips
Painting & Photography*
Stream and shoreline fishing
Interpretive Road-based tours*
RV and RV Appliance Repair*
Water Access

* New services added under these categories or clarifications to operating plans

CUA Operating Year
December 15 –December 14
CUA Operating Year
January 1 –December 31

[1] Photographers that are hired (receiving compensation) to take portraits (photos) of individuals (including domestic animals). This includes wedding photography, student and family portraits and documentary style portraiture.

[2] Service must originate in a park gateway community.Gateway communities include West Yellowstone, Big Sky, Bozeman, Livingston, Gardiner, and Cooke City, Montana; Cody and Jackson, Wyoming;and Idaho Falls, Idaho

Last updated: November 13, 2017

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

PO Box 168
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168



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