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USFS Photo Permit: What It Means For You

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Without permits, would Ansel Adams have been breaking the law?

If you take photographs in National Forests, you need to buy a $1,500 permit or face fines of up to $1,000 per shot. (Note: This is not entirely true. Read on.)

That news has spread like wildfire since the Oregonian broke the story on Sept 23rd.

What does it mean to you? I jumped into the regulatory documents and scrutinized USFS news releases to untangle this vague and somewhat spooky regulatory proposal.

If you’d like to comment on the proposal: The period for public input has been extended until Dec. 3rd due to high interest. You can make your comments heard here.

Does a photo like this, posted by the Forest Service itself on Twitter, constitute “commercial” use? Is it commercial if posted to a retailer’s site?

If you are a professional photographer: While the wording is vague and open to interpretation, it defines “commercial filming” as the “creation of a product for sale including a film, videotape, television broadcast, or documentary of historic events, wildlife, natural events, features, subjects or participants in a sporting or recreation event, and so forth, when created for the purpose of generating income.”

It’s unclear if professional still photography falls under that umbrella, but even small video operations for financial gain definitely do and must have a permit.

The regulations individually list “Still Photography” and “Commercial Filming,” with still photography required to have a permit when using models, sets, or props, or “when the Forest Service incurs additional administrative costs as a direct result of the still photography activity.”

Currently, commercial filming permit fees range around $30 per day for a group up to three people to as much as $800 for a large Hollywood style production, according to a Forest Service press release. It continues, “the $1,500 commercial permit fee cited in many publications is erroneous, and refers to a different proposed directive.”

If you are a news photographer or videographer: The most frightening aspect of these regulations to many are the potential first amendment implications. Tidwell spoke to these fears on Thursday.

“The US Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment,” Tidwell said in the release. “To be clear, provisions in the draft directive do not apply to news gathering or activities.”

Yet the definition of “news gathering” is remarkably vague at best. Last year, GearJunkie was forced to remove a video the company produced of hiking the Lost Coast of California. While the video footage was almost entirely of a small team hiking along the seashore, an activity that required zero assistance or resources from the government, the BLM asserted that, because it was sponsored by a large outdoor gear company, it was commercial and it required a permit.

The gray area is scary. While GearJunkie does not have the resources to take this to court, it maintains that this was an editorial shoot. Thus, the editors contend their first amendment rights have already been infringed upon. There is little doubt that this will continue under these new regulations.

I am concerned that this regulation could be used to halt any photography that may be damning to the Forest Service or others when the media is trying to ferret out wrongdoing.

If you are a recreational photographer. Fear not! These regulations do not apply to you. However, if you are concerned about the rights of the working press, First Amendment issues or commercial photographers and videographers, please continue to follow this important proposal. Enjoy your National Forests and keep clicking!

The Forest Service posted this damage control to its Twitter account today

For more information This link will take you directly to the US Forest Service’s proposed regulation. There you can read every word for yourself. It begins on page 55.

If you’d like to comment on the proposal: The period for public input has been extended until Dec. 3rd due to high interest. You can make your comments heard here.

My closing thoughts: As someone who makes a living taking pictures all over the world, a former newspaper photographer, and friend to dozens of pro and semi-pro photographers and videographers, I took this news to heart. At first glance, this is a hard slap across the face of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Holding back my knee-jerk reflex to anything that threatens the First Amendment, the Forest Service does have a reason for these permits. Large video productions make an impact on the environment and take resources away from the agency. This needs to be paid for by the user. If a large auto maker or beer company, etc., uses Forest Service lands for a huge TV shoot, they should pay for these commercial uses.

But the devil is in the details. The vague nature of this regulation makes me very wary, especially given its potential for abuse by a power-hungry, wayward public official.

Ultimately, I believe the regulations need to be revisited with direct input from working commercial photographers, press photographers represented by the National Press Photographers Association, and recreational users alike.

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