Tuesday, October 14, 2014


The US Forest Service has issued a proposal to require an expensive and extensive permitting process for anyone poised to photograph or film on federally-designated wilderness areas for “commercial gain,” triggering outcry from professional and amateur photographers, reporters, outdoor writers, and First Amendment supporters in mass.

    According to the controversial proposition, photographs and film, even if shot with a smartphone, would be subject to approval by Forest Service administration, following a detailed application designed to verify the intent of the media.  Upon approval, acquisition of a permit would cost up to $1500.  Those apprehended for violating the act could be hit with a fine of up to $1000.

    Now, before you dismiss this, readers, with a confident “Ah, that will never happen,” let’s take a look at the details.

    The proposal first gained public attention when the governmental agency posted a notice on the Federal Register on September 4 seeking public comment.

    In response to the outcry, the Forest Service has since spoken up to clarify that such an implement would not interfere with reporters or recreational photographers, one with commercial activity.  The regulation, the Forest Service states, has been deemed vital in honoring the 1964 Wilderness Act, which requires that the nearly 110 million acres set aside by Congress as “wilderness area” be preserved in their natural state.

    Moreover, the Forest Service wishes to direct attention to the fact that this measure has been effective since 2010, though with minimal enforcement.

    But even during a period of minimal enforcement, and with the Forest Service claiming to side with reporters and only oppose commercial motors, in 2010, the agency denied a public Idaho television station access to a wilderness area to film student conservation workers, according to the Oregonian.

    This exemplifies governmental overreach to a T.  In what started out as, and may still be viewed as, a beneficial measure in preserving America’s wildernesses, this government agency has slowly slipped a collared leash around the neck of the free reporter.

    Though the application seems to be tailored to evaluate commercial filming projects, requiring others to undergo the process is truly a violation of the First Amendment Freedom of the Press.  There seems to be some confusion about the idea that hampering personal freedoms is synonymous with limiting them.

    For even if this regulation has the intent that is commonly cited, giving the Forest Service—a government agency—the power to determine whether or not an individual or project will be issued a permit and, at that, how much it will cost, opens the door for biased governmental politicking in the media world.  And with smartphone cameras creating a hazy border between recreation and news-gathering, the path becomes laborious and winding.  Beware, the slippery slope.

    Furthermore, it seems to this author that the Forest Service would be doing itself a huge disservice by burgeoning the permitting process and hindering photographers wishing to photograph the beauty of nature in wilderness areas.  If you’ve ever visited a national park or wilderness area, or dream to some day visit one far away from home, chances are your desires were inspired by photography, whether on the cover of a pamphlet, on the internet, or in a magazine or book.  What would happen to growing public interest in the outdoors if this advertising and appreciation of nature was decreased or discouraged through the process being discussed?

    Thankfully, our country’s lawmakers, on both sides of the political spectrum, agree that this proposition is out of bounds. 

    The Washington Post cites U.S. Representative Greg Walden’s (R. – OR) letter to Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell:  “It is also very troubling that journalists could be held to different standards at the discretion of the issuing officer depending on the content of their stories and its relevance to wilderness activity.”

    U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D. – OR) also acknowledges the potentially First Amendment-violating rules, saying that the Forest Service should be careful of overstepping, according to the Oregonian.

    As an outdoor communicator, this issue poses a threat to me personally, as it should to anyone that enjoys recreating on our Nation’s public lands—most anyone reading this column.  Though this issue seems to be one that will be shaken down by legislators and the outspoken few, don’t let it earn a foothold.

    In response to the large-scale public protest that erupted with this breaking news, the Forest Service has extended their public comment period to November 3.  Take a stand for your public lands, and write the agency, your local legislator, or both with your opinion on the matter.  Or visit the website for the Federal Register and submit a formal comment.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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