Wilderness Headache

Story courtesy of ARRA - http://www.arra-access.com/
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA)

The Forest Service recently encountered a firestorm of protest from a constituency that generally hasn’t been opposed to the agency’s management of wilderness areas.  That all changed when the agency floated a proposed rule that would require news agencies to pay a fee and get a permit to cover news stories in designated wilderness areas.

What was disturbing to some was the fact that the agency said it would approve permits for journalists as long their intent had a “primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”  The media immediately said that the Forest Service was trying to manage the news by determining what coverage was appropriate.

The proposed rule was released on September 4th.  Mind you, the agency was only proposing regulations that had already been in effect on an interim basis for four years.   The basis is the fact that wilderness areas are not to be used for “commercial” purposes.  Defining what is “news gathering” vs. “commercial” enterprises such as filming in a wilderness area for a movie or documentary, is a difficult issue for any forest ranger or supervisor.   On September 25th, Chief Tom Tidwell issued a statement that clarified the intent of the rule.  He said it would apply to “commercial photography and filming only if you’re there to gather news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required.”

It is likely to take some time for the dust to settle on this one.  Having the Fourth Estate all up in arms is not what any government official enjoys.  Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)  wrote a rather strong letter to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack suggesting that the proposed directive was “a direct violation of American First Amendment rights and likely unconstitutional” and that Chief Tidwell’s recent assurances, though appreciated, weren’t enough.

Trying to manage wilderness areas as defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” is more difficult that it may seem.   The proposed rule has not simplified the task.  In fact, it seems to complicate things.  I can only imagine that the Forest Service official responsible for the drafting of this rule is now busily revising it.

And maybe, just maybe, this controversy will encourage a more in depth discussion about all of the complications associated with Congress designating more wilderness areas.  Probably wishful thinking, but something certainly deserving of more thought.