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US Forest Service Proposes Requirements for Photography in Wilderness Areas

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The observation tower at Paynes Prairie is currently closed for renovations. When open, the 50-feet high tower hosts nearly 250,000 guests each year, most of whom take photos or shoot video.

Aaron Brand/WUFT News

The observation tower at Paynes Prairie is currently closed for renovations. When open, the 50-feet high tower hosts nearly 250,000 guests each year, most of whom take photos or shoot video.

A proposed rule change by the U.S. Forest Service, which was announced on Sept. 4 in the Federal Register, could require media outlets to face a $1,000 fine or pay for a $1,500 permit and receive permission before filming or photographing within any of its 439 congressionally designated wilderness areas, 17 of which are located in Florida.

The new directive is necessary to give special use authorizations that allow the public to use Forest Service lands for still photography and commercial filming. The previous directive addressed photography, but commercial filming regulations were considered inadequate, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Following the release of the directive for public comment Sept. 4, First Amendment advocates said it is vague and goes against freedom of the press. Requiring permission to shoot video beforehand could allow the Forest Service to prevent shooting video footage for potentially negative stories.

Florida nature photographer and former newspaper photographer for the Gainesville Sun, John Moran, said he does not have enough information to take an official stance on the issue, but that the way the directive sounds is troubling.

“If the proposed rules are as they appear to be, it would seem that the federal government is flirting with doing more damage to their public relations than any perceived benefit they might accrue as a result of the new rule changes,” Moran said. “My understanding is that these proposed rule changes would not apply to ‘Joe Sixpack’ and the public despite initial appearances that perhaps it could.”

Park Services Specialist Amber Roux said that Florida’s state parks only require a permit when normal park operations would be interrupted by the photography or video shoot. State parks do not fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service.

“If anybody has any questions about the photography or media that they’re recording, like if it’s for a film that’s for profit or something like that, then they should just contact the park directly,” Roux said.

Following outcry over possible First Amendment violations in the directive, the Forest Service issued a press release Sept. 25 to clarify its position and extend the public comment period from Nov. 3 to Dec. 3. The release also stated that the $1,500 permit fee was “erroneous” and referred to a different directive.

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

Hobby photographer Jeff Donnell said that he can see both sides of the argument, but doesn’t understand the Forest Service’s need for the extra permit.

“I can respect the fact that they’re trying to preserve nature, but at what cost?” Donnell said. “I can understand if (people are) going out there trashing the woods, but most of the time when you’re taking photos of something, you’re appreciating it for its beauty.”

About Aaron Brand

Aaron is a reporter for WUFT News. Reach him by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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