Yes, it’s true that the lion’s share of the Forest Service budget is now going to dealing with wildfires, but is it so desperate for money that it has to hit up the people who do most of its marketing, photographers? A new policy, quietly proposed by the USFS on September 4 but now catching the public’s attention in a big way, would require $1,500 permits for media taking pictures in wilderness, with fines up to $1,000 for failing to comply. The rules could be applied to anyone taking pictures that result in some kind of commerce, from bloggers to amateur photographers who sell a print or two.
The Forest Service plan has set off alarms at media outlets and with First Amendment advocates, who say that the rules are vague and could be used to prevent access for stories that the Forest Service doesn’t like. There’s precedence for this: In 2010, the agency refused to allow an Idaho Public Television crew into wilderness to film conservation workers, but backed down in the face of public criticism, including from Idaho’s governor.
“The Forest Service needs to rethink any policy that subjects noncommercial photographs and recordings to a burdensome permitting process for something as simple as taking a picture with a cell phone,” U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat from Oregon, said. “Especially where reporters and bloggers are concerned, this policy raises troubling questions about inappropriate government limits on activity clearly protected by the First Amendment.”
Liz Close, the Forest Service’s acting wilderness director, defended the policy and said that the restrictions have already been in place since 2010 on a “temporary basis.”
Close said the rules don’t apply to breaking news, and that “if you were engaged on reporting that was in support of wilderness characteristics, that would be permitted.”
Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Oregonian newspaper, “It’s pretty clearly unconstitutional. They would have to show an important need to justify these limits, and they just can’t.”
The Forest Service is accepting comments on its proposed policy until November 3. You can read it in full here.
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