Some believe that Americans are taxed too much, regulated too much, over-fined and over-licensed, and now, the U.S. Forest Service is feeding into those concerns with a proposed new rule that would impose further media coverage restrictions on large swaths of lands owned by the public.
According to the proposal, which, as required by law, was posted in the Federal Register Sept. 4 reporters would be required to pay for a permit and get Forest Service permission before they would be allowed to shoot photos or videos in federal wilderness areas.
Rules have been in place temporarily for years
The proposed rule lists several criteria that members of the media would have to meet or comply with before a “special use” permit would be issued. Among them:
- The photography/videography cannot cause “unacceptable resource damage,” whatever that means;
- it “would not unreasonably disrupt the public’s use and enjoyment of the site where the activity would occur”;
- the shooting cannot pose a public health safety risk (but only government bureaucrats would suggest that taking pictures would be a risk to public health);
- the photos/video 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”; and
- the work would “preserve the wilderness character of the area proposed for use, for example, would leave it untrammeled, natural, and undeveloped and would preserve opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
The rules are expected to be finalized in November; prior to that, there is a customary commentary period for the public and concerned groups. As reported by OregonLive, under the rules, “a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in 36 million acres of wilderness would first need special approval to shoot photos or videos even on an iPhone.”
What’s more, there is a considerable expense involved: Permits would cost up to $1,500, Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers told OregoLive. He said any reporters who did not get the required permit could face fines up to $1,000.
Wilderness protection trumps the First Amendment
First Amendment advocates are livid. They say the rules bypass press’ freedoms and are vague to the point where the Forest Service could simply pick and choose which reporters it wanted to grant access to and bar the rest.
“It’s pretty clearly unconstitutional,” Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Alexandria, Va., told the publication. “They would have to show an important need to justify these limits, and they just can’t.”
Acting wilderness director for the Forest Service, Liz Close, told OregonLive that the restrictions have already been in place on a temporary basis now for four years; she said they are an attempt to preserve the untamed character of the country’s wilderness. Never once, apparently, did she explain why the rule was necessary or cite any damage done by reporters taking pictures of publicly owned land. Close also did not know if any media outlets had even applied for permits in the past four years; it’s a safe bet that most media organizations — like most Americans — are not even aware of this rule.
She did, however, say that the rule was in compliance with the Wilderness Act of 1964, which she explained was meant to protect such areas from being exploited for commercial gain.
Close — again — did not apparently explain how the media’s First Amendment protections were being recognized and protected.
After news of the Forest Service’s proposal broke, officials there changed their tune somewhat. The Washington Post reported that Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said his agency would “make changes to make sure this doesn’t apply to news gathering.”
“If you’re news media, it has no effect at all,” he said. “If you’re a private individual, this doesn’t apply.”
Tidwell said the permits generally would apply to large commercial operations — shooting TV commercials, where vehicles and other props are needed, for instance. But as of this writing, the rule itself has not been changed, meaning it can still be interpreted broadly to include just about any media that the service wants to include.