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Senate Committee Takes Action on Filming Permits on Public Lands

On November 19, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources took action on legislation that contained provisions addressing permits and fees for filming and photography on federal public lands. Mark Freeman, OWAA’s most recent past president, penned this update.

Just like that the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act (S.556) went from being a problem for journalists working on federal lands to a potential part of the solution for ensuring the First Amendment protections of Outdoor Writers Association of America members are not infringed. After more than a year of speaking out about attempts to force working journalists to seek permits and pay $200 annual fees to film or photograph on public lands, our collective voice appears to be heard.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee nearly unanimously supported an amended Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act that not only contained the gist of our comments to questions about the draft bill, but it also went further than we expected. We appreciate the Committees’ leadership in addressing our concerns.

The bill specifically exempts the “newsgathering” process from permits and fees for commercial filming on public lands. It also defines newsgathering “at a minimum” of “gathering, recording, and filming news and information related to news in any medium” while on federal public lands. The bill further exempts film or photography crews of three or fewer from fees.

None of those provisions were in the bill’s language Oct. 1 when OWAA Executive Director Tom Sadler and I were invited to answer questions by Senate committee lawyers about what we do and how we do it. We spent close to an hour going over why we believe the First Amendment makes logical a clearly stated exemption of permitting for journalistic activity on public lands to ensure that constitutionally protected actions by our members are not infringed even accidentally by federal land managers in the field.

They not only asked questions, they listened. They understood that the largest and oldest group of outdoor communicators is also the go-to group when it comes to seeking information about what we do on public lands and how we do it.

While what they came up with isn’t perfect, but it’s heading in the right direction. We anticipate being asked to comment on the “newsgathering” and other definitions during the rule-making process. Should the bill become law it does contain language that I believe exempts OWAA members’ normal journalistic activities on federal land.

A lot of people have spent considerable time and energy to get us to where we are today. However, the action in committee doesn’t mean that effort is over. According to Tom Sadler, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee has to weigh in on portions of the bill, and it could be modified when if and when it is considered by the full U.S. Senate. It also needs to be reconciled with similar bills in the House and, ultimately, would need a Presidential signature.

But we’re light years ahead of where we were at this time last year. We will continue to answer questions in detail when asked to weigh in on these issues. Last year, I pledged OWAA would do its best to make your $150 active membership save you $200 a year in federal permit fees. Though it’s not quite there yet, that $50 check with your name on it is a lot closer to being cleared.

Mark Freeman
Immediate Past President

For more on our specific and detailed comments to these First Amendment issues, here are a few links to visit.
OWAA sends letter about permits for filming on public lands to Senate Committee
OWAA position on permits for filming and photography on public lands

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