Feds want journalists to pay to report in parks

Congress is investigating if Bush Administration abused law

By Melissa Mahony

The National Parks belong to the American people, yet more of us learn about them through news coverage than camping or spelunking. Even so the government is currently considering a scheme that could limit—or even block—journalists’ access to federal lands.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is revising a law that requires permits and fees for commercial filming and photography on federal lands in an attempt to update and standardize what lucrative activities fall under the restriction. The move prompted a Congressional Hearing in December because, as chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) said in his opening statement, “This President has shown nothing short of open hostility to the public's right to know. As a result, we take seriously the possibility that in formulating these new regulations governing media activity on federal lands, the Administration may have exceeded Congressional intent when we passed the legislation authorizing these fees back in 2000.”

Officials say the regulations won’t apply to photographers or television videographers covering breaking news, such as lost hikers or forest fires. For other types of news coverage, local land managers would determine when to require permits and impose fees—circumstances that critics say could hinder journalists’ attempts to report on the land’s beauty, wildlife, and sometimes, mismanagement. (The general public can continue to strike poses hugging redwoods or lining up in front of an Old Faithful erupting, free of charge.)

 “Photography of the beauty and uniqueness of the national parks is the single most compelling way in which the public is made to love the parks and galvanize to action when they are in trouble,” says Destry Jarvis, a retired assistant director of external affairs for the National Park Service (NPS).

Over the 35 years Jarvis has worked with and for the parkscurrently as an independent consultant and formerly as head of the non-profit National Recreation & Parks Associationhe remembers many instances of photojournalism benefiting park policy: scenes of mining in Death Valley leading to the Mining in the Parks Act of 1976; a photograph of a smoggy Grand Canyon propelling a 1977 amendment to the Clean Air Act to improve visibility in the parks; pictures of off-road-vehicle damage to Florida’s Big Cypress Natural Preserve fueling restrictions on swamp buggies there in 2000.

 “When you have to pay $200 for a permit, it is going to discourage you from going out there to romp around for a story or looking for a good image or a good video,” says Timothy Wheeler, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “You are going to be in the hole even before you’ve sold it,” he says, referring to freelance journalists who often research a story before knowing it will be published.  

Congress passed the commercial filming law in 2000 to generate revenue for managing federal lands. For instance, when Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, or any time car advertisers rope off public lands to shoot scenic backdrops, they must obtain a license and pay a fee. A small group of still photographers in Yellowstone National Park might pay $50, while a film crew of 50 people or more would pay $750 each day they used the park’s land and staff.

The Forest Service reports collecting more than $2.3 million through the regulation, and the Bureau of Land Management issues about 350 filming permits each year.

But since the law passed, these agencies, as well as the NPS and Fish & Wildlife Service, have struggled to draw lines between news and entertainment.

“The definition of breaking news, the definition of commercial photography—Congress didn’t give us definitions of any of this stuff,” says David Barna, director of communications and public affairs at the NPS’s Washington, DC headquarters. “I think there will be a gray area among documentaries, and it’s going to be a contentious area.”

Other gray areas include sound recordings, cable television travel shows, and big budget television programs like Today or Good Morning America.

There is no need to regulate this stuff unless it is disrupting the resource or the public’s enjoyment of it,” says Wheeler. “It’s a function of what disruption they cause and how much competition there is for the spot they are in.”

Wheeler along with the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the National Press Photographers Association and others testified before Congress in December. Many other organizations also publicly commented on the bill, fearing possible misapplications of what many consider a vague law, which is currently enforced inconsistently throughout the country’s federal lands.

For instance, in the fall, a public affairs employee at Yellowstone National Park told a radio reporter that she needed to pay $200 and prove she had at least $1 million of liability insurance coverage to interview a wolf biologist in the park.

 We believe that faux pas tested our system here,” says Barna. He says the law creates an internal conflict between the parks’ public affairs departments and those in charge of fee collection. The new rule, Barna predicts, will not impose fees on journalists but will probably continue to require permits, which he likens to carrying press credentials.

Yet the permits concern Wheeler. “It’s a whole different relationship when they tell you that you can do it, but first you have to have permission.”