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Rules gone wild

idaho RANDY

Federal agencies heavily involved in regulation and rule making aggravate enough people in the normal and proper course of their work that the last thing they need is to go out of their way, in an incompetent fashion at that, to aggravate even more.

Meet the U.S. Forest Service, and its rules on photography in wilderness areas.

The Forest Services regulates wilderness areas around the country – many of them in the Northwest – and are supposed to do that with the purpose of wilderness in mind: Preservation of lands in a natural state, where people can visit but not stay and not leave behind traces of their visits. That means no human goods left behind, and no damage done to the areas.

The USFS has managed this job in many ways, some sound and some questionable. But restricting photography – the taking of still or video pictures with the use of hand-held camera equipment – in those areas wouldn’t realistically occur to most people as damaging to the wild character of wilderness.

Last week reports – based mainly in the Northwest but spread rapidly around the country – noted that an obscure forest rule required permits for photography in wilderness areas. Well, some photography. Under some conditions. The gray area here is vast. The weirdly vague rule is up for possible permanent adoption later this year.

An initial Forest Service email described it this way: “All organizations … including private citizens planning to use produced material to raise funds, sell a product, or otherwise realize compensation in any form (including salary during the production) are subject to review.”

Including vacationers, and news reporters, apparently.
After the media explosion, Service Chief Tom Tidwell replied, “To be clear, provisions in the draft directive do not apply to news gathering or activities. . . . Generally, professional and amateur photographers will not need a permit unless they use models, actors or props.”

Except that, in Idaho and Oregon at least, it turns out that news organizations (notably public television stations) have been either stopped from filming in wilderness areas or threatened with penalties if they did.

Salem Statesman Journal reporter Zach Urness, writing this weekend, noted that interpretations of the rule seemed to vary widely among Forest Service officials at various local and national levels. It does seem to open photography in the case of “breaking news,” though the definition attached to that term is also vaporous and open to abuse.

But the rule clearly gives local Forest Service officials latitude in deciding whether to allow the photography, and to base much of the decision not on whether wilderness areas would be harmed by the activity, but on whether the news report would be one that the Forest Service liked. A directive suggests a green light if the planned news report (and the news organization would have to disclose in advance what the report is intended to say) “Has 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.”

In other words, the Forest Service would insert itself into the newsroom to decide which stories get reported and which don’t.

Could amateur photographers be caught up in this too? Possibly. The rules make reference to “commercial” photography, but the definitions there too are slippery.

If anyone but the Forest Service is on the Forest Service’s side in this, they haven’t made it clear. Members of Congress from both left and right, Republicans and Democrats both, have jumped all over the Forest Service for this. News media have too of course, but you can expect an angry reaction as well from many wilderness supporters, many of whom love to take pictures when they hike the backcountry.

This rule is the most obvious and real “kick me” sign any federal agency has posted on itself in quite a while. And that’s saying something.

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