Commercial film and photo permit fees

mt hood wildernessThe United States Forest Service (USFS) recently announced plans to adopt new commercial film and photo permit fees for use in designated wilderness areas. The announcement raised the ire of news agencies and journalists as the plan’s initially vague details made it appear that permits could apply to news coverage and documentary journalism. Some of the concern stems from a 2010 case where the Forest Service barred Idaho Public Television from filming in the Frank Church Wilderness – a decision that was later reversed.

The initial public response to the Fed’s new permit idea prompted the USFS Chief, Tom Tidwell, to issue a statement assuring Americans that, “the directive pertains to commercial photography and filming only – if you’re there to gather news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required.”

Since the bulk of backcountry ski photos and films are shot on national forest lands or in wilderness areas, it seemed worth learning more. As it turns out, the USFS established a similar policy regarding commercial filming and photography on national forest land back in 2000, called Public Law 106-206. The legislation gave federal land managers, National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authority to require permits for commercial filming activities on the Federal lands they manage.

According to the rules established in 2000, professional and amateur photographers do not need a permit unless they use models or actors (paid), props (lighting and camera rigging); work in areas where the public is generally not allowed; cause additional administrative costs; or are shooting for the sole purpose of selling or marketing a product (like a catalog clothing shoot). In other words, simple handheld and tripod work without paid models is OK without a permit. The regulations go on to state, “…photography of the public engaged in recreational activities, where there are no additional administrative costs and is in an area open to the public would not require a permit.” Sounds like it covers the bulk of ski related work.

The recent press release from Forest Chief Tidwell went on to explain the FS is looking to “…formally establish consistent criteria for evaluating requests for commercial filming in wilderness areas as it has on national forests and grasslands.”

So, although the new plan is not a full-on rights grab, it is still very important that any new plan is specific in its definition of what is considered “commercial” and what is not in order to avoid the potential for subjective application. Broad language provides a slippery slope. In that spirit, it’s important to weigh in on the process.

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