It's one of those wilderness cliches: Take only pictures, leave only footprints. For a short time last week, it looked as if the U.S. Forest Service was going to charge people to take pictures in federally-designated wilderness areas. It's part of a proposed regulation about "commercial filming," that would join existing rules for "still photography," in wilderness areas - the most highly protected federal lands in the United States.
Looking at the regulation definitions, it seems pretty clear that the people who want to take pictures on their vacations can do so without fear of a $1,000 fine. Still, the Forest Service has itself to blame for the furor, given the statements from some of its top officials that even news media would have to get permits to take photos and videos in wilderness areas.
That would be a clear violation of the First Amendment, not to mention the kind of absurd and self-defeating measure that makes people mistrust government. The Forest Service and every other steward of wilderness should be encouraging people to visit and appreciate the majesty of these places, not putting up more obstacles.
Late last week, the Forest Service Chief tried to douse the fire by saying news gathering is welcome in the wilderness.
In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, there are typically zero permits issued for commercial filming, said Kris Reichenbach, spokeswoman for Superior National Forest. Reichenbach said the Forest Service issues anywhere from three to six permits for elsewhere in the forest.
Still, as the commercial filming regulation moves forward, there's an interesting clause in the proposed rule that raises questions about how much the Forest Service can control the message.
In deciding whether to permit filming in wilderness, the Forest Service must ensure that the project has "a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value."
That's linked to a provision in the 50-year-old law that created the National Wilderness Preservation System. One of the purposes is "the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness."
So if you're filming in a wilderness area to produce a documentary about how much better it would be as a water park or a parking lot, you're out of luck.