Forest Service clarifies proposal on news photos in wilderness, after First Amendment outcry

The U.S. Forest Service vowed Thursday that a proposed policy change will not interfere with news-gathering groups’ constitutional rights to take pictures on federal wilderness property, following a backlash from First Amendment supporters.

“The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment,” agency Chief Tom Tidwell said. “The directive pertains to commercial photography and filming only. If you’re there to gather news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required.”

The rancor started after the agency posted a notice Sept. 4 in the Federal Register seeking public comment on the proposal. If approved, the proposal would permanently establish the same criteria for evaluating requests for commercial filming in wilderness areas as is used for requests in national forests and grasslands.

The Forest Service points out that roughly 110 million acres of land are designated wilderness areas and must remain in their natural condition, under the 1964 Wilderness Act, and that the agency has a “responsibility” to uphold the law by in part restricting some commercial activities.

Public TV stations in Oregon and Idaho reportedly have been asked to obtain Forest Service permits for either still of video photography in the past four years, with the directive in temporary status.

The agency defines wilderness as an area “untrammeled and free from human control.”  Among the restrictions are no personal-use motor vehicles or mountain bikes.

Despite the announcement Thursday evening, Republican senators and others critical of the proposal vowed the keep fighting.

“This proposed regulation is just one example of the kind of federal overreach that comes when we lock up our public lands in wilderness designations,” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Friday. “If the Forest Service is intent on moving forward with its proposed regulation, it must make clear that these kinds of activities are exempt.”

Wyoming GOP Sen. John Barrasso has also raised concerns about the proposed change.

On Friday, he told the Star-Tribune: “To me, it’s a direct violation of Americans’ First Amendment rights. … It’s clear that the Forest Service believes that wilderness areas are government land. But it’s public land. This is public land.”

An email was later sent to Barrasso and Murkowski’s press officers because it was unclear whether either knew about the Forest Service announcement.

A Barrasso spokeswoman told on Saturday that the senator isn't satisfied with the response and plans to make sure the Forest Service "never moves forward with this outrageous plan."

Jim Angell, the executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, was not assured by the agency’s clarification.

“The federal government can always say one thing, but what it actually does depends on who’s writing the words,” he told the Star-Tribune. “In my dealings with a lot of these federal agencies, they tend to forget what they’ve said when it comes time for the rules.”

As a result of the widespread concern about the proposed change, the agency also has extended for 30 days the Nov. 3 deadline for public comment.

“We’re looking forward to talking with journalists and concerned citizens to help allay some of the concerns we’ve been hearing and clarify what’s covered by this proposed directive,” Tidwell said.

He also pointed out that professional and amateur photographers generally will not need a permit unless they use models, actors or props or if they work in areas in which the public is generally not allowed or if their work causes “additional administrative costs.”

He argued the agency has long required permits for various activities -- from cutting a Christmas tree to filming a major motion picture, including the 2013 Johnny Depp movie “The Lone Ranger.”

The Disney production obtained a permit to film part of the movie on the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico.