Feds to public: This land is OUR land, and we’re gonna make you pay

One of the goals I have for this site is to get people outside. For starters, it’s good for you. And just as important, when you see the outdoors for yourself you gain an appreciation for it. With that hopefully comes a desire to protect and preserve those great wild spaces for everyone.

But now comes a couple of moves from the geniuses in Washington — one inside the bureaucracy, another from Congress — that would discourage and  even punish people who go into public lands for recreational purposes.

So let’s break it down…

Careful there, shutterbug. That pic might cost you $1,000.

Careful there, shutterbug. That pic might cost you $1,000.

FOREST SERVICE AND PHOTO FEES

First, the U.S. Forest Service wants to charge you a $1,500 fee for a permit to shoot photos or videos on USFS lands. And if you’re caught shooting without a permit, you get a $1,000 fine.

Liz Close, a USFS wilderness director, told media outlets that the rule is designed to follow the 1964 Wilderness Act, which forbids commercial exploitation of wilderness areas.

I’m all for protecting wilderness. But there are several problems with this proposal.

For starters, it runs afoul of the First Amendment. Still images and video are all considered protected free speech.

Second, the rule seems pretty arbitrary and open to a variety of interpretations. Does a news organization doing a feature story (not breaking news, which the USFS says it will allow without a permit) constitute “commercial exploitation?” What about coverage of ongoing news stories in wilderness areas? Who decides that?

And what if the “exploitation” in question is from some nature blogger who has a couple of sponsors on his or her site? Does that poor devil need to pony up $1,500 to take a pic of a waterfall?

The Wilderness Act was designed to protect wilderness areas from commercial activity that would alter or destroy their timeless, wild characteristics. That’s why there is an absence of oil wells, strip mines, amusement parks, luxury hotels and other big-footprint operations in federally designated wilderness areas. It’s also why any forms of mechanical transportation are likewise forbidden.

A photographer or a video crew carrying their gear on foot will not have any more impact on wilderness than an ordinary backpacker on a multi-day trip. Likewise, the ambiguity of what constitutes “commercial activity” should not threaten the average person with a camera or a smartphone who wants to get some images of nature.

Outside Online reports that public outcry has caused the agency to delay final implementation until December, and has extended a public comment period. You can make your voice on this subject heard here.

You might see tents. But certain members of Congress see dollar signs.

You might see tents. But certain members of Congress see dollar signs.

CONGRESS PULLING A FAST ONE

At least we can give the USFS credit for being open about their new, albeit wrongheaded, rule. But Congress is trying to do something that may end up costing you, and lawmakers are doing it in such a way as to sneak it in under our noses.

As reported by The Adventure Journal, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is trying to slip House Resolution 5204 into a general appropriations bill, and he might be able to do it without so much as a single hearing.

What does HR 5204 do? Here’s the breakdown, as cited by The Adventure Journal:

• It would remove the ban on the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management charging for parking, picnicking along roads or trailsides, general access, dispersed areas with low or no investment, driving through, walking through, boating through, horseback riding through, or hiking through federal recreational lands and waters without using facilities and services, camping at undeveloped sites that do not provide minimum facilities, and use of overlooks or scenic pullouts. The bill replaces them with a single prohibition on fees “For any site, area, or activity, except as specifically authorized under this section.” The Western Slope No Fee Coalition says, “Since ‘this section’ authorizes fees for anything, that prohibition is meaningless.”

• The Forest Service and BLM would be allowed to charge day fees for entry to national conservation areas, national volcanic monuments, visitor centers, and anywhere that has a toilet within a half mile.

• Interagency passes, currently $80, would automatically go up in price every three years.

I’m wary of legislation that is passed without any debate or a hearing, but that’s what  is afoot here. It’s also exceedingly vague, basically allowing fees to wriggle into public land use based on what someone might want to do at the time. There are already fees in some wilderness areas, but most are free. HR 5204 could greatly expand the number of places where fees would be assessed.

If this bothers you, consider writing your congressman and senators quickly — as in within a week — as it’s likely to be part of a continuing resolution to be passed soon to keep the government from being shut down.

In both of these cases, it’s not really clear what policy goal is trying to be accomplished. But they both seem to have a monetary goal — finding new revenue streams. I could rail on policymakers for not having the courage to reform the nation’s tax code in a way that would address federal budget woes, but that is another topic for another day.

What it clear is that both of these initiatives hurt the cause of wilderness in that they cut off public access by way of creating new financial hurdles for the people who love wilderness the most. If policymakers want to find ways to properly fund and manage wilderness areas, there are far better methods to do it than by  feeing and fining the public for enjoying public lands.

Woody Guthrie famously penned the words, “This land is your land, this land is my land.” The feds seem to be saying it belongs to them, and not us. That’s a sentiment that needs to be corrected.

UPDATE: The USFS has clarified (changed?) its position on permits for news gathering organizations. Earlier it had said it would apply to news organizations unless footage was obtained in a breaking news situation. The Forest Service on Thursday told The Associated Press a different story: “The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment,” USFS chief Tom Tidwell said. “It does not infringe in any way on First Amendment rights. It does not apply to news-gathering activities, and that includes any part of the news.”

The Forest Service also said that the rule would not apply to professional or amateur photographers unless they were using “models, actors, or props or work in areas where the public is generally not allowed,” Outside Online reported.

This is all good news — and a sign of what a little pressure can do in terms of making sure the government listens to people. It’s still worth your time to make your feelings known by clicking on the link above concerning public comments on USFS policy on this matter.

Bob Doucette

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