Free Press

Do You Have a Permit to Capture Those Trees on Film, Citizen?


But what if somebody makes a revenge porn site. But for trees!
Credit: wackybadger / photo on flickr

Oh, you think government lands are public lands, American citizen? You think the wilderness belongs to you? You are good for a laugh, citizen. Now show me your permit to take photos in this forest. Don't have one? That will be $1,000, citizen. We do take checks.

That's the latest from the U.S. Forest Service, which is implementing restrictions that will require any media outlet to get a permit to take pictures or shoot footage on land under their control. The Oregonian explains the potential consequences that seem to be clear to just about everybody except the U.S. Forest Service:

Under rules being finalized in November, a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in any of the nation's 100 million acres of wilderness would first need special approval to shoot photos or videos even on an iPhone.

Permits cost up to $1,500, says Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers, and reporters who don't get a permit could face fines up to $1,000.

First Amendment advocates say the rules ignore press freedoms and are so vague they'd allow the Forest Service to grant permits only to favored reporters shooting videos for positive stories.

"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 wilderness director can't explain to The Oregonian why the rule is needed. Apparently the restrictions have been in place for four years, but she couldn't recall whether any media outlet had actually paid for a permit. She invoked the Wilderness Act of 1964 and said its goal was to prevent the forests from being "exploited" for commercial gain. Obviously, taking a picture or video in the wilderness doesn't "exploit" the wilderness in any logical way even if the photographer sold the art. Do they think cameras steal the souls of rocks? Do they think there's a market for some sort of "Pine Trees Gone Wild" film series showing them getting drunk off fresh summer rain and shedding all their needles? But an expensive permitting process certainly does allow the Forest Service to "exploit" citizens for fees to pad out their budgets.

The rule also gives supervisors discretion whether to approve the permit on the basis of whether the coverage was in support of the Wilderness Act's goals. When asked whether the rule was a violation of the First Amendment, she responded that there's an exception for "breaking news." That's not how it works, federal government employee.

Read more here.