Forest Service hears ‘Voice of the outdoors’

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Journalists don’t need to pay to cover wilderness

Standing at a trailhead leading into Southern Oregon’s Wild Rogue Wilderness Area on a Tuesday in November, it struck me that what I was about to do so casually was something other outdoor writers have been doing only with special dispensation and at a cost.
An hour earlier I decided to make the main piece for my upcoming outdoors section in the newspaper a story about a local hiking club that garnered a $26,000 federal grant to re-open 40 miles of overgrown wilderness trails that were victims of budget cuts to the U.S. Forest Service’s trails-maintenance program.
A quick call to the club president had us meeting to hike into the effected wilderness area for a shot and a short video to round out my Friday package. At that moment, I thought of fellow OWAA member Kris Millgate, who has been asked routinely in Idaho to apply and pay for permits to film something as simple as a short fall-colors piece on national forest land.
What I was about to do in Oregon, for free and hassle-free, could have gained Millgate a federal citation of up to $1,500, simply because the Idaho forest supervisor had a different interpretation of the agency’s filming policy in wilderness areas than in Oregon.
Thanks to the efforts of OWAA, Millgate and all our members no longer have to worry about working under the threat of fines.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell wrote a public letter to his forest supervisors laying out exactly how and why he believes working journalists are not subject to the Forest Service’s permit requirements and fees laid out in its current rules. He also said he intended to make that clear as the agency crafts permanent rules governing filming in wilderness, a move that will put to bed any current and future clashes over whether journalists need “permission” to do our jobs covering America’s wild places.
Until that rule language is adopted, I strongly suggest that every OWAA member working on Forest Service lands carry a copy of that letter. It’s not so much a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it is a way to prove you have the right to work unimpeded on
public land.
If you haven’t seen the letter yet, an electronic copy is on the OWAA web site at
You might notice in the letter Tidwell references assistance from OWAA in clarifying his intention for how the rule should be applied. We have affected meaningful change for every OWAA member as well as all journalists — even those who don’t yet realize we’re looking out for their professional interests — whose work involves covering public lands.
This Forest Service debate over whether journalism should be subject to the Forest Service’s restrictions on “commercial activity” in wilderness areas has consumed much of the first half of my presidency. Really though, it was good timing.
As a newspaper reporter covering outdoors and the environment, living in a state with 47 federally designated wilderness areas, I have a lot of experience with public lands and dealing with the Forest Service on many levels, and I’ve never been asked to seek a permit for anything. Like Millgate, I’m not interested in asking for permission or forgiveness. We deserve to do our jobs without permitting hassles and governmental pre-story screening.
Tidwell said he has no intention of treating working journalists telling stories about and on public land like Budweiser’s Clydesdale horses in that famous Super Bowl commercial — an instance in which a permit and fee were proper.
I told him about Millgate’s dilemma and he said that was exactly the type of work the rule should not impede.
That’s why ensuring the permanent rules specifically include an exemption for working journalists has been the focus of OWAA’s comments to the agency. I wrote the initial comment draft to Tidwell with Millgate in mind; if we could solve her problem, we’ve got all of OWAA covered.
After my last column in OU ran about a conference call I and OWAA Executive Director Tom Sadler had with Tidwell, members from across the country sent me emails warning us not to trust Tidwell or the agency with following through on their answers to our concerns.
Since that writing, Tidwell’s letter not only matched the spirit and some of the specific language from our discussion, Tidwell even went a bit further to give his litmus test on working journalists.
“Is the primary purpose of the filming activity to inform the public, or is it to sell a product for a profit?” Tidwell wrote. “If the primary purpose is to inform the public, then no permit is required and no fees assessed.”
At this writing, what was left was ensuring that the final rule’s language accurately and faithfully reflects that promise.
When I stepped into the Wild Rogue Wilderness that November day with my photographer, we focused on work. We shot stills and video of the wilderness trails that were set to be cleared. We didn’t look over our shoulders. We didn’t worry about a Forest Service cop arriving with a ticket book in hand.
And on your future assignments, neither will you.
OWAA’s forceful presence in this debate affected change benefiting our members professionally and financially. Tidwell acknowledged our impact in his letter and I believe the final rule will also reflect it.
Perhaps this will exceed the push-up contest as my most significant OWAA legacy. ♦
— OWAA President Mark Freeman,

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