UPDATE Sept 26 2014: Looks like the backlash against the Forest Service was loud enough that they are extending the comment period and legislative representatives both at the state and federal level may be intervening. Here's hoping for some common sense. More can be found on a recent article over at Oregon Live.
Recent announcements by the US Forest Service are slowly making its way around social media and news outlets (see Oregon Live) to the outcry of photographers around the country. The key complaint is the formalization of a draft Interim Directive that is meant to clarify restrictions to commercial photography within National Forests. The Forest Service has referenced its responsibility to protect public lands from commercialization as a basis for this regulation. In documents dating back to 2010 in draft proposals they state dramatic increases in commercial photography requests as the basis for the updated regulation. In fact this more restrictive policy has been in effect selectively for the last four years.
I would tend to give the Forest Service the benefit of the doubt in regards to their motivations. Protecting limited natural resources from the likes of excessive logging, mining, development and protecting species of animal and plant life all makes sense. The devil however is in the details or I should say the lack of details, which seems to ironically be the original intent of the updated proposal. Depending on interpretations of this policy regarding commercial entities they could package together photography workshops, large photo shoots, a single guy with a DSLR, to a person snapping a photograph with a smart phone as potentially in violation of this policy and subject to fines without first obtaining proper permits.
It is worth mentioning; in one of the original draft documents discussing the details of the Interim Directive did attempt to separate out non-commercial photography as not being impacted by this ruling:
“It is important to note that there is no permit required for most still photography or for non-commercial filming on National Forest Lands including wilderness areas. That did not change in this Interim Directive” Interim Directive 2709.11 Special Uses Wilderness Filming
So where is the problem?
The problem falls within the definition of “Commercial Use”. Currently the Forest Service defines commercial use as
"..use of motion picture, videotaping, sound recording, or any other moving image or audio recording equipment on National Forest System lands that involves the advertisement of a product or service, the creation of a product for sale, or the use of models, actors, sets, or props, but not including activities associated with broadcasting breaking news, as defined in FSH 2709.11, chapter 40." Source: Title 36, Chapter II, Part 251
As a photographer I personally fall into the vague category of commercial use because I do occasionally sell and license my photographs. But let's not stop there. Taking an Instagram photo for your business, take a snapshot of a forest vista and post to a Facebook account for your business, sell fine art photographs, or are you a member of the press reporting on something that isn't "breaking news"? All of these are commercial activities according to these guidelines and you must first acquire a permit, which by many accounts, are difficult to get. Anyone else see the problem here?
I would hope the Forest Service’s intent is not to require such a heavy financial and administrative burden on individuals whose photography has no greater impact on the environment or resources then that of a regular visitor irrespective of whether it’s for commercial purposes or not. The metric should be the impact on the environment and forest services and not the intended use of the photographer's work. I understand the need to have limits in place and giving the Forest Service the benefit of the doubt I can only assume that this is a very poorly worded attempt at trying to accomplish this. Although I've heard from many folks that the Forest Service is unnecessarily restrictive to photo workshops there is no doubt that a couple large photography workshops can saturate an iconic spot very quickly. A large photo shoot by a big outdoor manufacture with models, camera crews, etc. can be very disruptive. The original goal of this directive was to make a regulation more clear for cases such as these but instead it has introduced even more ambiguity potentially leading to unintended negative consequences to the public.
The National Forest Service manages 155 forests containing almost 190 million acres of land and compromises almost 8.5% of the total area of the United States. Chances are if you own a camera you could be impacted by this decision.
So what can we do?
The Interim Directive currently is pending implementation until the public comment phase is over. Luckily that isn’t until 9/4/2014. You still have a chance to express your opinion. Don’t take my word for it though. Read the proposal. Read the current policies. Submit your comments. It’s as easy as sending an email or if you’d like to be more formal about it you can still mail and fax your comments.
I encourage you to not sit on the sidelines of this decision or you might find yourself on the sidelines unable to enjoy and make fair use of our public lands.