Photograph Nature? Prepare to Face a Fine-Time To Fight Back!

The federal government, specifically the U.S. Forest Service, is seeking to change language in their rules which will allow them to penalize people who take photographs/still images and/or video images on federal wilderness areas, meaning they, actually YOU, will need to pay a fee in order to take a picture. I am a travel writer and photographer. My not so edited reaction is WTF?

Many unwitting people are suggesting that this is not the directive of the government. Well, I have read the directive and I can tell you what is uniformly true of any government document: it is vague and open to interpretation. My official and edited response during this public comment phase is listed below. The Forest Service Handbook, states that only commercial filming activities require a use permit when specifically, “that involves the advertisement of a product or service, the creation of a product for sale, or the use of actors, models, sets, or props … when created for the purpose of generating income.” Here’s the newsflash for the federal government – any travel book, article, collection of photographs, etc. is done by a writer or photographer for the purpose of generating income – by it’s very definition that is our job. That this directive is so poorly written and could easily be punitive is disturbing. I encourage everyone to add their public comment HERE and make sure you include that your comment relates to “Commercial Filming in Wilderness, Interim directive (ID) 2709.11-2013.1” You have until November 3rd, 2014. Click the GREEN button at the upper right labeled "Submit a Formal Comment." Otherwise images that I took, included below may not be seen much anymore.

In Re: Commercial Filming in Wilderness: “The Forest Service proposes to incorporate interim directive (ID) 2709.11-2013.1 into Forest Service Handbook (FSH) 2709.11, chapter 40 to make permanent guidance for the evaluation of proposals for still photography and commercial filming on National Forest System Lands.”

I am compelled to respond to the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed action to charge photographers and writers for images taken in the 36 million acres of federal wilderness areas across the U.S.

As President Theodore Roosevelt wrote “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.” And I heartily concur. As a travel writer with six travel books, many of which include listings of state, local and regional parks and wilderness areas, not to mention dozens of travel articles that feature these areas, it is an important part of my job to document and photograph what are the compelling reasons for guests to visit these areas. According to your proposed legislation, Interim Directive FSH 2709.11, chapter 40, section 45.51b, “It will provide guidelines for accepting and denying still photography and commercial filming applications in congressionally designated wilderness areas.”

Whether you understand it or not, people are visual creatures, and as such the primary goal of an article or book is to draw visitors to wilderness areas based on images more so than actual text. I have happily supported and promoted federally protected lands all of my life. My goal as a writer and photographer is to get people interested in these places and if that means it's a photograph of a stunning vista, then that is the hook. Writers like me do not make a lot of money. Yes we sell books, articles, we write blog posts, and write for websites but that does not mean we are given remuneration such that it would cover a $1,500 fee to photograph nature areas. Any attempt by the federal government to mandate that we should sign a waiver and pay an upfront fee, or be denied a permit and/or fined for doing our job, will result in catastrophic consequences for the Forest Service. As President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children's children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.” Travel writers like me never mar the landscape, never harm these areas because we have such inherent respect for the natural beauty that makes America great. We only seek to fulfill Roosevelt’s admonition to preserve these areas for future generations.

Recently I was working on a nationally distributed travel book and a California wilderness area demanded that I pay an upfront fee to photograph part of it. I explained that I did not have the financial resources to cover the fee and that it was to their advantage to allow me to photograph the place, and thus promote the area, bringing in revenue. They did not relent. Therefore, I cut them out of my book entirely. That is a sad commentary specifically for the number of tourists who could have visited. But to demand money from photographers, writers and editors is a lunatic piece of legislation, which will backfire in the long run. I for one, and other travel writers like myself, will not tolerate in any way shape or form this kind of, what amounts to, extortion. We support, promote and encourage travel to federal lands, but we will not be coerced into paying a fee because the government cannot manage its own resources – and it seems clear this is what this directive is about - money, or your lack of it. We are all aware of budget cuts, which are affecting our parks and wilderness areas. But there are other ways to increase revenue rather than single out a specific segment of the population (writers and photographers), which amounts to discrimination. If this legislation goes through, I will see it as my duty and obligation as a writer to corral my travel writer colleagues around the globe, not just the U.S., to boycott Forest Service lands. Do not assume a small group of travel writers does not have much of an impact, we do. Persistence of forcing a fee onto the back of writers clearly shows that you cannot see the forest for the trees.  

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