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USFS Rethinks Film and Photography Permits

Original rules stepped on First Amendment rights

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Eighty percent of the popular Idaho Public Television show Outdoor Idaho is filmed on U.S. Forest Service and wilderness-designated land. That has been the case for almost 30 years, and it hadn't been a problem until 2010, when the film crew decided to do a segment on the Student Conservation Association--a program that takes kids from all over the country and teaches them wilderness stewardship.

Bruce Reichert, the show's host and executive producer, called the USFS regional office about filming and was told he couldn't do it.

"They said, 'Well, you don't need to film [the students] in the wilderness,'" Reichert told Boise Weekly. "We said, 'Oh yeah we do, because that's where they're at and that's the whole point.' We thought that was just absurd."

It wasn't the last time Outdoor Idaho was denied access to USFS or wilderness land, due to a law requiring permits for commercial filming and photography in wild areas. In the meantime, Outdoor Idaho has pushed back.

"We have learned not to be silent," Reichert said.

It took 50 pages of correspondence, as well as Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and a few congressmen, to persuade the Forest Service to allow Outdoor Idaho to film the students. The show was shot by one videographer with a small camera and tripod.

For the past four years, the rules requiring commercial filming and photography permits have been open for public comment, but it wasn't until last month--when the public comment period was slated to close--that the directive landed in the center of a media storm.

As the rules read now, filming and photography can only take place on Forest Service and wilderness land if the subject qualifies as breaking news--or if it's shot by a private citizen. Everything else, including Outdoor Idaho's documentaries, requires a permit costing from $10 to $1,500. Facing outrage from both professional and amateur filmmakers, the Forest Service extended the comment period to Dec. 3.

"This rule was written with big Hollywood feature film productions in mind, but the rules were written to apply to all, but they gather up everybody, like public television stations and small one- or two-person film crews," said Ron Pisaneschi, general manager of Idaho Public Television. "There is a difference between the Ford Motor Company wanting to shoot a commercial for their new car, helicoptering it into a wilderness area, and having a crew of 27 and big lights and a crane to shoot it, or shooting Jurassic Park III--and us."

Outdoor Idaho has had to scrap several stories when the Forest Service couldn't get a permit quickly enough—sometimes taking months when deadlines needed to be met by the end of the week. And the cost of the permits could rack up.

"We had to take this fight on if we were going to continue Outdoor Idaho," Reichert said. "The idea of getting a permit every time we went out would have been time consuming and expensive."

When USFS Chief Thomas Tidwell visited Boise, Pisaneschi sat him down for a conversation about the problems the rules were causing. Pisaneschi said Tidwell was supportive and admitted that the rules were not supposed to hinder educational, noncommercial television.

On Nov. 4, Tidwell released a directive easing restrictions for journalists while further comment was gathered.

According to the directive: "Journalism includes, but is not limited to: breaking news, b-roll, feature news, news documentaries, long-form pieces, background, blogs, and any other act that could be considered related to news-gathering."

Pisaneschi and Reichert told Boise Weekly they feel much more optimistic with those broader regulations, which would exempt Outdoor Idaho from needing a permit.

Most recently, producers paid for a $450 permit to allow them to shoot in every one of Idaho's wilderness areas for the upcoming "50 Years of Wilderness" episode, to air on Sunday, Dec. 7. The permit allowed two crew members to walk through the Frank Church Wilderness and one crew member to raft down the Selway River, plus time spent in Hells Canyon, Craters of the Moon, the Sawtooth Mountains and the Owyhee Canyonlands.

To help set the new rules, USFS National Press Officer Larry Chambers flew to Boise, Seattle and Portland last month, meeting with journalists like Reichert.

"We're trying to get out as much as we can—get out where we have a lot of Forest Service land," Chambers told BW at a public meeting on Nov. 11. "Rather than writing policy from a cubicle in D.C., we want to make sure we're getting the best information."

The challenge of writing the new rules, Chambers said, is balancing access with land impact.

"If you're going out with a GoPro or your smartphone, we're not going to ask you for a permit to do that kind of activity; that's not having an impact on the land," he said. "Really, that's what the issue needs to be--what's the impact on the land."