Forest Service clamps down on photography in wilderness

Sunset in the Boundary Waters. Sean Collins

A picture in a national forest might cost you $1,000 if you snap it without a permit. Is this a threat to First Amendment rights?

The U.S. Forest Service is finalizing rules that will require journalists and photographers to have permission before taking a picture or shooting a video in a wilderness like the BWCA, the Oregonian reports.

“It’s pretty clearly unconstitutional,” said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Alexandria, Va. “They would have to show an important need to justify these limits, and they just can’t.”

The rules appear to apply only to reporters and photographers who are working on stories that may not be “friendly” to practices in the wilderness. They would still allow for breaking news coverage of fires and rescues.

With smartphones blurring the lines between reporters and camera crews, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said the agency should tread more carefully.

“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,” Wyden 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.”

Most of the country’s wilderness is in the West. Nearly 50 wilderness areas have been designated in Oregon, including wide stretches of land around Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington.

The rules allow exceptions only for breaking news coverage of events like fires and rescues. They’re more stringent than similar policies on wilderness areas managed by a different federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM does not require any special permit for newsgathering in wilderness areas.

By contrast, the Forest Service is giving its supervisors discretion to decide whether a news outlet’s planned video or photo shoots would meet the Wilderness Act’s goals.

“If you were engaged on reporting that was in support of wilderness characteristics, that would be permitted,” Close said.

“On the one hand I really do understand what they are trying to do — if you have a huge crew filming a movie or commercial on wilderness land, it can have a very negative impact,” Steve Bass, Oregon Public Broadcasting President and CEO, tells the Oregon Statesman Journal. His company produces Oregon Field Guide.

“But the government can’t determine what’s news and not news – it’s a pretty clear violation of the First Amendment.”