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Why is the Forest Service Restricting Photography in Wilderness Areas?

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My love of an intrusive federal government is well-known. I think government can indeed do most things better than the private sector. But that doesn’t mean that government is perfect. Far from it. I was hoping that the FDA’s attempts to restrict raw milk cheese imports was the stupidest regulatory standard I would hear of this year. But the Forest Service has it beat:

The U.S. Forest Service has tightened restrictions on media coverage in vast swaths of the country’s wild lands, requiring reporters to pay for a permit and get permission before shooting a photo or video in federally designated wilderness areas.

Under rules being finalized in November, a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in 36 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.

Huh? Why?

Liz Close, the Forest Service’s acting wilderness director, says the restrictions have been in place on a temporary basis for four years and are meant to preserve the untamed character of the country’s wilderness.

Close didn’t cite any real-life examples of why the policy is needed or what problems it’s addressing. She didn’t know whether any media outlets had applied for permits in the last four years.

She said the agency was implementing the Wilderness Act of 1964, which aims to protect wilderness areas from being exploited for commercial gain.

“It’s not a problem, it’s a responsibility,” she said. “We have to follow the statutory requirements.”

That doesn’t make very much sense at all. First of all, it’s a non-problem. Second, why does it apply to individuals taking pictures?

Not surprisingly, there is a significant backlash from western members of Congress of both parties:

Rep. Peter DeFazio and three other congressional leaders said Monday they still have deep concerns about the constitutionality of a U.S. Forest Service proposal restricting wilderness photography.

The Forest Service faced nationwide outrage last week over plans to require a permit for photography and filming in vast swaths of the country’s federally designated wilderness areas. Its chief, Tom Tidwell, backed off late Thursday, saying his agency respected the First Amendment and wouldn’t restrict media or amateur photographers’ access.

But the onslaught of criticism has continued.

As written, the proposal would allow special permits to be granted for commercial filming in wilderness only to share information about the “use and enjoyment of wilderness” or its scientific, educational, historic or scenic values.

DeFazio, D-Ore., Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the top leaders in the House Natural Resources Committee, said that requirement was “constitutionally questionable” and should be rescinded.

“We do not believe the Forest Service, or any other agency, should be in the business of determining what type of information can be disseminated to the public,” they said in a Monday letter to Tidwell.

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said the provision was just one example of the gaps between Tidwell’s promises Thursday and the Forest Service’s written proposal.

Tidwell told the Associated Press last week that the plan didn’t apply to still photography. The proposal repeatedly says it does.

I’d say there is about a zero percent chance this ever gets implemented. I wish I knew why the heck this proposal was even floated.

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