Forest Service attempts to clarify wilderness photography rules

Alaska mountains

Photo by Bill Gabbert

After a public outcry about a very poorly written and ambiguous proposed rule that would govern the use of still and video photography in U.S. Forest Service wilderness areas, the agency attempted to clarify the draft rule, issuing a press release at 8:45 p.m. on Thursday, stating in part:

“The fact is, the directive pertains to commercial photography and filming only – if you’re there to gather news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required. We take your First Amendment rights very seriously,” said Tidwell. “We’re looking forward to talking with journalists and concerned citizens to help allay some of the concerns we’ve been hearing and clarify what’s covered by this proposed directive.”

The proposed rule, the way it was explained to the Oregonian’s reporter, would have required permit fees of up to $1,500 for reporters who took photographs in wilderness areas, unless they were covering breaking news. Many critics of the Forest Service’s rule said it violated the first amendment to the Constitution — freedom of the press.

There are several other provisions in the written version of the draft rule that are troubling and give Forest Service employees far too much discretion about what could and could not be photographed or reported on in a wilderness area.

The proposed rule states several times that permits are required for “still photography and commercial filming”. It does not specify that still photography for non-commercial uses does not require a permit. In fact, it implies the opposite.

The application for a permit for photography can be denied if a USFS official decides that there is a “suitable location outside of a wilderness area”. Employees in the local National Forest get to use their photographic editing skills to make that determination.

A permit can also be denied if a Forest Service official decides that the project does not have “a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value”. That is a lot of subjective criteria to put in the hands of a Forest Service employee. And it appears to be an attempt to control the thoughts and motives of photographers and film makers. Exactly WHY a person, commercial photographer or not, WANTS to take a photo or make a film should NOT be subject to review by a Forest Service employee. Their only concerns should be to prevent physical damage to the natural resources and to not interfere with the ability of other citizens, also the owners of the public land, to enjoy the wilderness. If the Forest Service is going to incur costs during the filming, such as having a minder there to insure there is no physical damage from a large crew, then the agency is within their rights to charge a permit fee.

The details about this rule are to be found, not in the published draft rule, but in multiple USFS manuals that are referenced, which then refer you to another manual, which then says, for example, the price of the photography permit fees are to be determined by each individual National Forest. So, it’s very confusing and time consuming to attempt to find out what the rules really are. There are 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. Navigating that jungle of bureaucracy could be a challenge. And I say that as a former employee of the Forest Service and Park Service.

The Forest Service needs to rewrite the poorly written draft rule to clearly say what it covers and what it does not cover. If more details or requirements are in other publications, those important passages should be included in the rule, rather than forcing a person to go off on multiple scavenger hunts in an attempt to discover what the Forest Service is really trying to say.

The Forest Service also needs to remind their staff, who are employees of the citizens of our great nation, that Forest Service lands are not solely the property of USFS employees. The land belongs to the people of the United States. The Forest Service should be working on ways to make it easier, not more difficult, for the people to enjoy their National Forests.

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Satellite photo of wildfires in Northern Idaho and northwest Montana

Satellite photo of fires in N ID and NW MT 9-25-2014

Satellite photo showing fires in northern Idaho and northwest Montana, September 25, 2014. NASA. (click to enlarge)

This satellite photo from mid-day on Thursday shows wildfires in northern Idaho and northwest Montana. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite.

Smoke appears to be trapped in some drainages in Idaho, which was probably produced by the 8,500-acre Johnson Bar Fire and the 8,000-acre Selway Complex of fires. The fire across the state line near Thompson Falls, Montana, north of the smoky drainage in Idaho, is not showing up on the InciWeb maps.

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San Diego County hopes to get better fire maps from CAL FIRE

When 14 fires broke out in May of this year in San Diego County many of the fires were managed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). A report about the firestorm identified some problems and areas for improvement. One of those was the failure of CAL FIRE to make maps of the fires available to some county officials and the public. The San Diego County Office of Emergency Services has now reached an agreement with CAL FIRE to make mapping a priority.

CAL FIRE is often criticized for their failure to provide maps of ongoing wildfires in the state. The U.S. Forest Service often post maps of the fires their agency is managing on InciWeb, either on the incident’s main page on the site, a.pdf file on the Maps page, or a link where the perimeter can be downloaded in a format compatible with Google Earth. It can take two to five days after a fire starts before maps from a USFS fire are available, but at least most of the time, eventually, the public can view or download maps of a large fire that they fear may be threatening their property. The USFS can do a better job consistently making maps available, especially early in an incident, but in comparison to CAL FIRE, they are far more responsive to the needs of the public.

In the video above, CAL FIRE Capt. Kendal Bortisser said one of the reasons fire maps are not released is because they may cause confusion and panic. It could be argued that keeping the location of fires secret adds more to confusion and panic than the release of a map ever could.

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Forest Service’s new rule restricts photography in wilderness areas

(UPDATED at 8:15 p.m. MDT, September 25, 2014)

The Oregonian received some additional information from the U.S. Forest Service late today about the requirements of permits for photography in a wilderness area:

Tidwell’s statement said he was attempting to “clarify the agency’s intentions” and would not require a permit for news-gathering or recreational photographs in wilderness areas. Tidwell didn’t explain why others in his agency told The Oregonian the opposite just two days earlier.

On Tuesday, Liz Close, the agency’s acting wilderness director, said the Forest Service would permit reporting in wilderness depending on its subject matter, with exceptions for breaking news. “If you were engaged on reporting that was in support of wilderness characteristics, that would be permitted,” Close said.

The proposed rule states several times that permits are required for “still photography and commercial filming”. It does not specify that still photography for non-commercial uses does not require a permit.

The application for a permit for photography can be denied if a USFS official decides that there is a “suitable location outside of a wilderness area”. It can also be denied if a Forest Service official decides that the project does not have “a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value”. That is a lot of subjective criteria to put in the hands of a Forest Service employee.

I conducted some additional research, and found that all of the details about this rule are to be found, not in the Federal Register, but in various USFS manuals, which then refer you to another manual, which then says, for example, the price of the photography permit fees are to be determined by each individual National Forest. So, it’s very confusing and time consuming to attempt to find out what the rules really are. There are 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. Navigating that jungle of bureaucracy could be a full time job.

Radio traffic for emergency management has transitioned from codes, like the the 10-codes (10-4, 10-22, 10-97) to clear text — actually using your words — that can be easily understood, without needing a translator if you are not versed in that particular version of jargon.

The U.S. Forest Service needs to write their rules in clear text.

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(UPDATED at 3:05 p.m. MDT, September 25, 2014)

The Oregonian, which broke this story, reported today that the U.S. Forest Service is going to extend the comment period for the rule restricting photography in wilderness areas:

Amid growing public outcry, the U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday it will delay finalizing restrictive rules requiring media to get special permits to shoot photos or videos in wilderness areas.

The federal agency will allow public comment for an additional month, until Dec. 3, Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said, and set up meetings to answer questions from journalists, wilderness groups and the public…

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(Originally published at 2:56 p.m. MDT, September 24, 2014)

According to OregonLive, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing a new rule that would require reporters to apply for, and if approved, buy a permit to take photos in a wilderness area.

The U.S. Forest Service has tightened restrictions on media coverage in vast swaths of the country’s wild lands, requiring reporters to pay for a permit and get permission before shooting a photo or video in federally designated wilderness areas.

Under rules being finalized in November, a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in any of the nation’s 100 million acres of wilderness would first need special approval to shoot photos or videos even on an iPhone.

Permits cost up to $1,500, says Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers, and reporters who don’t get a permit could face fines up to $1,000.
First Amendment advocates say the rules ignore press freedoms and are so vague they’d allow the Forest Service to grant permits only to favored reporters shooting videos for positive stories…

Like the article says, the lines between reporters and an individual with an iPhone are blurry these days. What if a hiker sees something shocking about how the Forest Service is managing a wilderness area and submits a photo to a newspaper which then publishes it? Could they be breaking the law if they don’t buy a permit to take the photo? Does this give the USFS too much power to control what the public knows about how their lands are being managed?  It will be up to the local Forest Supervisor to decide on a case by case basis if the permit should be issued.

Are we going to have to edit the age old advice of, “Take only photos; leave only footprints”, adding an asterisk:

*However, if you are a “reporter” in a U.S. Forest Service wilderness area be sure to apply for and, if approved, buy a permit costing up to $1,500 to take a photograph.

You can read the Forest Service’s proposal here. At the top-right on that page you can click on “Submit a formal comment” if you have an opinion on the topic. You have until November 3, 2014 to tell the Forest Service what you think.

We are giving this our lame-ass ideas tag.

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