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.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

20 thoughts on “Forest Service’s new rule restricts photography in wilderness areas”

  1. It’s a rather long word, but even a USFS Washington DC bureaucrat should be able to spell “Unconstitutional.” If they can’t, I’m sure the US Courts will help them.

  2. Seems a bit strange. FS wont allow its people to be questioned and wont allow the peasants to take pictures on FS land. A bit fishy indeed.

  3. Just when you think the FS couldn’t get anymore half butt backwards…… they pull this stunt. Retirement can’t come soon enough.

  4. Unenforceable and unconstitutional to say the least. With nearly EVERY person in the western world owning a cell phone that now takes hi-res photos and video, this is just a totally absurd proposal that will be quashed faster than you can whistle Dixie.

    1. It may or may not be quashed, Craig, unless there is an outcry. It’s been on the books for a while. Here’s another quote from the article:

      Liz Close, the Forest Service’s acting wilderness director, says the restrictions have been in place on a temporary basis for four years and are meant to preserve the untamed character of the country’s wilderness.

      As far as I know, Ms. Close did not give an example of how in the past taking a photo has damaged the “untamed character of the country’s wilderness”.

      This flies in the face of the administration’s stated “Open Government Initiative” that is spelled out on the White House website.

      Maybe the U.S. Forest Service does not understand how a photograph works, or the agency has religious beliefs about a photo stealing your soul, like some people from the 19th century.

  5. WOW

    Who are these people and where do they come from and really…..educated(?) professionals MSU (making s!@#t up)

    An organization in need of reorganizing…..right of the rails.

  6. I went to a bachelor party in Canada once. We entered a nice family bar and got the group together for a photo. The bouncer came over and very politely asked us to stop taking pictures. When questioned the bouncer replied that there may be things going on that some folks would not want photographic evidence of.

    This FS story reminds me of that story.

  7. So, if we are walking through the woods and see a deer and would like to take a picture, we must go to a Forest Service office and buy an expensive permit before we can take a picture of the deer?

  8. With realities like this who needs conspiracy theories? I will no longer be telling any more lawyer jokes,the subject will be changed to ” USFS officials”.
    So what DO you call 10 USFS officials at the bottom of the ocean?

  9. I can see how if a major movie production crew wants to bring in a full production company with lights, booms, crews, cameras, etc, etc, that could negatively impact, but IF that’s ever even been an issue, such a broad prohibition would be killing a mosquito with a sledge hammer. To prohibit a reporter (or anyone else) from shooting footage is ridiculous.

  10. As a retired FS line officer, I’m chagrined by this. I don’t plan on stopping taking pictures in wilderness areas. We issued permits for commercial filming on FS lands – permits which included resource protections to keep film crews from getting carried away. The idea of restricting news media, though, was, at least to me, anathema. The idea of restricting citizens who are recreating on FS (public) lands from photographing their experiences is ridiculous.

    I don’t think this is being done by folks in an attempt to hide something from the public, though. I do think it is a move by wilderness managers that can be viewed as a bit overzealous, though. Maybe someone will wake up and get this back into a realistic and, to my way of thinking, proper perspective.

  11. @EricW RE: sledgehammer …
    This is like spotting some guy in a red flag area lighting up a pipe, and ordering a full load of retardant dropped on him.

    Agency people display a notorious lack of understanding of photos, photographers, and copyright law. The WO tried issuing directives some years ago saying that the rights to any photos taken by firefighters belonged to the agency — which is just total crap. Sorry, boys and girls, federal copyright law trumps whatever you want to issue as direction for your temp employees.

    I’d cede that a crew of 75 for movie production needs a permit (and probably a babysitter) on a W&S river or a wilderness area or probably just on a NF. Maybe even a production crew of 20. But individual photogs? Bill, this does indeed get the lame-ass idea tag. Heck, this one should have its own special tag: lame-ass+

  12. We updated the article with news from The Oregonian today, which first broke the story on Wednesday.

    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…

  13. The gulf between America and some federal employees is incredibly broad. They are confident enough that they are willing to state openly that they’ll allow some types of reporting — reporting that THEY deem in support of wilderness characteristics — but not other reporting? The federal government is trying to restrict political views to only an allowable bandwidth. For instance, it’s quite clear to me that a reporter who in the past had written an article questioning, say, whether “green jobs” in Montana really were going to impact the global climate, well, ain’t getting a permit, because the USFS “knows” that this kind of reporting is not in support of wilderness. Same for someone who’s covered the NRA favorably. What’s all the creepier is the USFS undoubtedly has someone monitoring even this blog, and trying to make out names, and trying to ferret out and then stomp out any deviance from the party line.

  14. I am thankful to be retired and no longer associated with FS. So they are concerned about preserving the untamed character of the wilderness and think that using cameras destroy that? OK, FS, you really should quit using any modern devices in wilderness if that is the case. That means all your workers should not carry radios or – gasp – GPS while there, among other things. Have any repeaters in wilderness areas? You need to get rid of them! Whoever came up with this lame proposal and all those who support it should be deported. I’ve known for a long time that there are people in FS that consider it FS land, not PUBLIC land. This is just further proof of the attitude that members of our government have developed in our country. We need to comment loudly on this and ensure that it remains PUBLIC land, not FS land! How disgusting!

  15. I’m not a news reporter or editor anymore, but let the idiots publish a regulation and then bring a case. Any Forest Service lawyer willing to show up before a judge sober and with a straight face and try to prosecute such a case is … a brand new lawyer who somehow missed the semester they were teaching Constitutional Law. There is no version of a prohibition on mere photography that would stand constitutional scrutiny. There is literally no possibility that a broad permit requirement or prohibition on mere photography in a public space could be lawful. Even a commercial movie … suppose it’s just one person with no lighting and one of those new 35mm digital movie cameras. How do you make a rule saying that person can’t click the video on? Money-making intent? So if it’s a documentary intended for profit it’s yes or no?

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