Permitting Problems

If this organization, or another one, accesses the wilderness with cameras for a feature story – say, one critical of land management – would they have to pay?

By Kellyn Brown

Bad ideas are floated all the time. Often, after you bounce them off someone, you either abandon or refine them. With any luck, that’s the end game for the U.S. Forest Service and its proposal to charge for permits to photograph and film federal wilderness areas.

The plan, which would be finalized later this year, would charge a fee up to $1,500 to shoot commercial photo or video in wilderness areas. That’s a steep price, and so is the penalty, $1,000, for not paying. According to the Forest Service, this would prevent the exploitation of the wilderness and maintain the intent of the 50-year-old Wilderness Act.

“The Wilderness Act pretty clearly prohibits commercial enterprises in wilderness areas,” Liz Close, Acting Director of Wilderness for the U.S. Forest Service, told the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon.

Lest you think I’m only protecting this company’s interest, ours by no means would be the only one potentially affected. Freelance filmmakers and nonprofits could be in a legal gray area and subject to fees.

Greg Leslie, legal defense attorney director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Oregonian: “It’s pretty clearly unconstitutional. They would have to show an important need to justify these limits.”

The Forest Service has said that breaking news, such as wildfires, would not be subject to the fees. That’s great, but what about everything else?

If this organization, or another one, accesses the wilderness with cameras for a feature story – say, one critical of land management – would they have to pay? This is public land managed with public money. It would be akin to paying a fee to photograph the Lincoln Memorial.

In the Forest Service’s defense, this directive was implemented four years ago, but it’s rarely been enforced. And the rule, according to the agency, is to make permitting for commercial enterprises more consistent.

But critics, including Montana’s U.S. delegation, say it’s too vague and told the Forest Service to clarify the permitting proposal.

“We have grave concerns and are deeply skeptical of the government putting limits on activity protected under the First Amendment,” Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh said in a joint statement.

Congressman Steve Daines expressed concern about the countless visitors who “document and share special moments on social media, a blog, or through emails and texts with their family,” because those moments, more often than not, are shared on commercial platforms.

In response to the outcry, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tim Tidwell has tried to squash many of the concerns and stressed “that the U.S. forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment.” He also announced that a comment period on the proposal, originally expected to close Nov. 3, has been extended by a month.

But this bad idea has already had consequences. According to the Seattle Times, Idaho Public Television was told earlier this year that it needed to get a permit to access and film the wilderness. The permit did not hinge on the size of its crew or cameras, but “whether government approved of their story.”

Other reports include a radio reporter told to buy a permit to interview biologists about wolf reintroductions in Yellowstone and another of a television station told to buy a permit to film student conservation workers. In the latter case, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter actually complained to the Salmon-Challis National Forest about the permitting process. He probably has better things to do.

This idea should be scrapped or narrowed in scope to only include large commercial operations, such as those from a Hollywood studio. And the employees who work for the agency need to be taught how to consistently enforce it.

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