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Forest Service says it never intended permit policy to regulate photojournalists

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  1. Newsgathering
A controversial proposal to restrict wilderness photography and regulate commercial filming was never intended to require newsgatherers to obtain permits,…

A controversial proposal to restrict wilderness photography and regulate commercial filming was never intended to require newsgatherers to obtain permits, according to the U.S. Forest Service. But the wording of the regulation will need to be changed to satisfy the concerns of a media coalition that has protested the policy.

The agency's director and spokesperson both said the service intends to allow for a wide interpretation of newsgathering, which is exempt from the permit process, that extends far beyond the narrow definition of "breaking news" that appears in the directive.

The agency’s definition of “breaking news” as “an event or incident that arises suddenly, evolves quickly, and rapidly ceases to be newsworthy,” is narrow and confusing, and has led to instances of service employees stopping journalists covering newsworthy events.

Much of the reporting that news crews and photographers do in wilderness areas includes interviews and fact-finding that is not related to a sudden or quickly evolving event, which— according to the directive’s wording — would qualify the activity as “commercial filming” or “still photography,” both of which require permits.

According to spokesman Larry Chambers, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is intent on changing that wording.

“The chief’s intention is that we are not going to be looking for a permit for any type of news,” said Chambers. “Where the language doesn’t meet his intention, he wants to see it changed.”

According to Chambers, news will include anything from documentary filming to collecting "b-roll" video footage. The criteria for a permit relates purely to the creator’s primary intent, he says.

“Is it to inform or to make money?” Chambers said.

This directive has been in place for four years on an interim basis. The USFS is attempting to formalize the directive and make it law. When the agency released the proposal for feedback, many journalists and news organizations felt the statute requiring reporters to obtain a permit for anything other than breaking news infringed on their First Amendment rights.

In the past four years, USFS employees have often enforced the directive based on the restrictive interpretation, rather than how Tidwell said it is intended to apply.

In 2010, an Idaho Public Television crew attempting to film student conservation workers was denied access since the documentary would be sold on DVD. According to Idaho Public Television’s general manager, the definition of commercial filming is too broad and does not account for non-profits.

“They have said, ‘you sell DVDs, therefore you’re commercial.’ They have said, ‘Your staff is paid, therefore you’re commercial,’” Ron Pisaneschi said in a phone interview Monday. “But we are a non-commercial entity.”

Pisaneschi said the documentaries are only sold on DVD to individuals who specifically request a hard copy. Otherwise, “we broadcast them for free; they’re available online for anyone to stream whenever they want to.”

Chambers said that in creating the directive, Tidwell never intended to require news organizations to obtain a permit if the news would be sold or if the reporters are being paid a salary. He said this type of enforcement will not continue.

“Those will no longer apply. This is very much not what the chief had in mind here,” according to Chambers, who said he understands that in order for news organizations to produce news, “the public service has to have some type of financial element.”

Tidwell echoed that statement in a letter addressed to the media coalition, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, that protested the policy.

“Reporting the news, sharing information for public benefit, doesn’t require a commercial filming permit. It never has, and we are not proposing to make this change now.”

There was also concern reported that permits would cost $1,500, but Chambers says that amount has been taken out of context. The fee for a commercial filming permit starts at $10 per day for a crew of one to three people, while the $1,500 permit fee only applies to a crew involving 70 or more people.