At his website, Sherpa John has a three part series on what it takes to put together a trail race. It is, perhaps, a commentary (a somewhat sad one, depending on whom you ask) that he devotes fully one-third of his series (so far) to the permitting process. An excerpt:
Anytime you are gathering a large group of people to use public lands, especially if you are accepting payment to do so, you need a permit. Parties who could require permits are Town/City and County Governments, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), United States Forest Service (USFS), Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), and some of the above even require you obtain special written permission from private land owners before a permit is issued.
. . .
So go back to the course you’ve planned. Take a look at the map and determine if your route goes over any Wilderness or other Federally Protected Areas. If it does, kiss the idea of obtaining a permit good bye. In most, if not all, cases.. you CAN NOT obtain a permit for special events in these areas. There is no loop hole, there is no “what-if.”
Given the sheer number of permits that might be required for any given event, I suppose it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that nationwide organizations like Tough Mudder find it necessary to employ in-house attorneys (although they have a different set of legal issues than a lot of other races).
Running (and trail running especially) owes a significant part of its popularity to the fact that people view it as an escape. For most people the permit process remains, thankfully, in the background. For race organizers, however, Sherpa John’s post just goes to show that even at a trail race out in the middle of nowhere, you’re probably not escaping civilization as much as you think you are.