Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Facing heavy criticism, Forest Service revises plan to charge for media access

Emigrant Meadow Lake in the Stanislaus National Forest’s Emigrant Wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service found itself in a public relations nightmare by stating that commercial enterprises, including the news media, needed a permit to photograph or film wilderness lands. It clarified the directive Sept. 25 to say it only applies to filmmakers, advertising shoots and similar uses after setting of a firestorm because the directive usurped First Amendment rights.
Emigrant Meadow Lake in the Stanislaus National Forest’s Emigrant Wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service found itself in a public relations nightmare by stating that commercial enterprises, including the news media, needed a permit to photograph or film wilderness lands. It clarified the directive Sept. 25 to say it only applies to filmmakers, advertising shoots and similar uses after setting of a firestorm because the directive usurped First Amendment rights. jjardine@modbee.com

It’s a shame Ansel Adams isn’t alive to be the test case.

If the famed photographer of all that is Yosemite and the High Sierra wanted to photograph a national forest wilderness – say, for instance, the Ansel Adams Wilderness – would he need to pay the U.S. Forest Service for a permit to do so?

After all, Adams was a commercial photographer.

A temporary Forest Service directive established four years ago and set to become permanent next month would have enabled a ranger to make the call as to whether Adams’ brand of artwork had news value to the general public or was merely a moneymaker for a man who made his money photographing the high country. But wait – there’s more. They planned to charge the news media for permits, too, threatening fines for reporters who didn’t pony up.

Or is that what they meant? The directive is so vague and left to interpretation that some Forest Service officials felt empowered to grill an Idaho public TV station that wanted to film a segment on the 50-year anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

“It was a bit of an arduous process, and there were a lot of questions about what was the nature of the program, where we were going,” the station manager told The Associated Press.

Consequently, the directive triggered a firestorm in the very media it sought to control, and with other First Amendment watchdogs. Would forest officials have the power to issue permits only to those who promised to write glowing stories about the wilderness or the Forest Service itself? And was the government itself creating a pay-to-play system to report on public lands?

Thursday, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell issued a news release to clarify the directive and the agency’s intentions, and extended the public comment period until Dec. 3.

“The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment,” Tidwell said in the release. “To be clear, provisions in the draft directive do not apply to news gathering or activities.”

Now, maybe. But that wasn’t the case in recent weeks, when Forest Service representatives, including acting Wilderness Director Liz Close, were interviewed by the Portland Oregonian and media outlets. The fee, one agency spokesman said, could be as much as $1,500, with fines of up to $1,000 for reporters caught shooting pictures or video without a permit.

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Tidwell said the $1,500 fee figure was erroneous, which would suggest the directive as written was too vague for his own spokespeople to understand and explain. The actual fees, he said, would range from $30 to $800 depending upon the scope of the operation.

The sudden backtracking doesn’t impress Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, whose district includes the Stanislaus National Forest and its Emigrant Wilderness, along with the Eldorado and Sierra national forests.

He said the Forest Service operates within a “culture of exclusion,” citing areas of the Rim fire still closed a year after they burned. McClintock said he spoke with crews on the King fire who are frustrated because poorly maintained forest roads made fighting the blaze far more difficult. Indeed, some roads that once provided access to the forests and the wilderness trailheads are either closed or have deteriorated to the point where only four-wheel-drive vehicles can navigate them.

“They are arbitrarily inhibiting use of the public lands,” McClintock said.

The wilderness directive might drive Congress to look into the Forest Service, its management and its mindset, he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we had hearings in the Public Lands Committee in the next session.”

The concept of charging fees to film or shoot advertisements on public lands is nothing new. Both the Forest Service and the National Park Service have been making filmmakers pay for years. The Park Service charged Ken Burns fees to film his series on – of all things – the national parks that aired last year on PBS in 2010 and also is sold on DVD. It charged the company that filmed “Maverick,” starring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster, even though there was no mention of Yosemite in the movie – just footage showing some of the park’s more distinguishable features.

Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said he has no intention of restricting the news media nor distinguishing between breaking news, columns and opinion or features.

The Forest Service also has charged fees for commercial uses. The Wilderness Act prohibits use of motor vehicles and equipment such as chain saws, generators, bicycles and whatnot in an attempt to keep these pristine areas unencumbered by mankind and gadgetry.

Other than outdoors writers, though, reporters rarely venture into these areas unless, like me, they’re on vacation. In recent years, I’ve written about the Emigrant Wilderness, its check dams, a historic cabin, and snow and weather conditions as they pertain to the drought, and I took photographs every time.

Earlier this week, I could have been facing a $1,000 fine if caught doing so without a permit come Nov. 3. Now, no big deal, officials say. We didn’t mean you or your ilk.

The issue centers completely on a government agency on the cusp – whether by design or poor language skills – of giving itself the power to control the media, restrict First Amendment rights and play God when it comes to determining what constitutes news vs. pure commercial enterprise.

Which brings us back to Ansel Adams. How would an iconic professional photographer with a wilderness named in his honor rate?

“If he’s providing beautiful images to better inform the public, we consider that news,” Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said.

Whew! Glad to see he would meet the new old standards.

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