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Forest Service listens on filming in wilderness rules

Outdoor Writers Association of America members joined the outcry in September against the U.S. Forest Service’s proposal to require permits for filming in federally designated wilderness areas, a rule that would cost journalists money and allow the agency to decide who could cover what stories on those public lands.
Since then, the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor communicators’ association has been helping create a positive solution to these conflicts, at Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell’s request.
OWAA Executive Director Tom Sadler and I talked with Tidwell on the phone in early October. No spin-doctors. No handlers. No advisors. Just the three of us talking shop on how to fix the rule so it helps the Forest
Service meet its stewardship requirements without unduly burdening our members or butting heads with the First Amendment. We discussed Tidewell’s intentions for the proposed rules, OWAA’s concerns with the proposal’s language and how our members already have been victims of misinterpretation of the current directive’s language.
Both Sadler and I came away believing Tidwell and OWAA are primarily on the same page when it comes to journalistic activities in America’s wildest places — working journalists do not, and should not, need permits for filming or otherwise reporting in wilderness areas.
Since then, we have been crafting comments to the Forest Service’s proposal to ensure our members are not lumped into the same category as commercial filming such as movies and advertisements.
The Forest Service created an interim directive in 2010 requiring permits for commercial photography and filming in wilderness areas. In September — during the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964 — the agency proposed making the rules permanent.
As written, it would require media outlets to pay for special-use permits before they film or take photos in wilderness areas or face fines of up to $1,000. The draft language left it open for individual forest supervisors to decide which journalists get to work in wilderness areas and what kinds of stories they can report. Some of the language also left it possible that the rules could be applied to all Forest Service lands. The door into this Pandora’s Box is an interpretation that working journalists potentially violate the wilderness values that include keeping these areas free from commercialization, a notion that clearly clashes with First Amendment guarantees.
The Forest Service quickly began to back pedal after vocal objections from OWAA and other journalists and said it does not apply to working journalists in the “news gathering” process. Still, the language is vague and open to a wide spectrum of interpretations.
When Sadler and I spoke to Tidwell, he specifically expressed to us that the rules are meant to cover things like movies and television commercials, the kinds of productions that can include stages, props and actors. They are not meant for outdoor communicators, Tidwell said. They’re not about photos for articles, B-roll video, television outdoor shows or even the minute-long videos newspaper people like me now shoot regularly to accompany web-based outdoors packages.
I told him about member Kris Millgate’s recent problems in Idaho, where she was told she needed to apply for a permit to shoot a public-television segment on fall-color viewing on national forest lands — not even in a wilderness area. Tidwell agreed that was not a proper interpretation of the rules, and he understood that his people in the field need much clearer guidance on how to apply such policies.
We also stressed that perhaps the Forest Service should pattern its rules after Department of the Interior rules for ease and consistency.
Tidwell did not come across as defensive. He listened when detailed how that language can be, and is, easily misinterpreted. Moreover, he seemed to grasp how working journalists like our members run the gamut from traditional newspaper and magazine writers to independent television producers, podcast and bloggers – all part of the big tent OWAA has pitched in recent years.
Since this writing, OWAA has submitted the comments and offered suitable language for these rules that Tidwell requested from us.
When the Forest Service realized they needed help writing the rule, they turned to OWAA, knowing we don’t just criticize. We problem solve. We are the true voice of the outdoors, the go-to group of outdoor professional communicators who offer solutions to outdoor related policy issues in the 21st century. ♦
— OWAA President Mark Freeman,

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