by Ron Spomer
Our wonderful National Parks, forests and Wilderness Areas exist because pioneering photographers, painters and writers — journalists all — explored them and alerted the public to the desperate need to save them from exploitative abuse.
From William Henry Jackson in Yellowstone and Theodore Roosevelt across the West to Ansel Adams and Aldo Leupold, conservationist writers, photographers and illustrators raised both awareness and a conservation ethic that enabled Congress to pass legislation creating such things as National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges and National Parks.
And today photographers and videographers are being denied access to these same places.
Crazy though it seems, managers of these national treasures can deny, at their whim, anyone a permit to photograph, film or videotape on those public lands. Over the years dozens of journalists have had their applications for permits rejected with such nonsensical justifications as “you can find someplace else to do that.”
That any permit should be required seems odd in and of itself. The general public may photograph, film, tape, paint, write poetry or indulge in any other creative interpretation of our national lands without a permit, but anyone who tries to sell what they create can be threatened with a 5-month jail term and $6,000 fine.
Obviously the act of filming has little or no destructive impact on public lands. If it did, no one would be permitted to indulge. Penalizing someone for selling their private creations long after they’ve left the national lands seems petty bordering on ridiculous. What is the point? To suppress initiative, creativity, free expression and job creation? Does the government really want to discourage its citizens from creating wealth and paying income taxes?
Public lands are compromised for income all the time. Miners dig into hillsides and suck gravel from trout streams. Logging operations on National Forests remove millions of trees each year at a huge environmental cost and financial loss (estimated over $500 million annually.) The shortfall is made up by taxpayers.
Cattle graze the National Forests for less than $1.50 per horse or cow/calf unit per month. As they do, they consume vegetation that could have fed and housed native wildlife. They trample riparian habitat and foul waterways, cave in banks and destroy trout habitat — for less than 5 cents per day.
A photographer lucky enough to get a permit on a National Forest will pay $200 per day. Are photographers eating more grass than a cow? Are they pooping in lakes and streams? What resources are they consuming to the tune of $200 per day?
If the National Forest Service can sustain timber harvest and cattle grazing that deplete both the land and the treasury, can’t they tolerate journalists who take nothing but reflected light and generate income, jobs and Federal income taxes?
It is time to reassert our rights to access OUR public lands. These forests and refuges do not belong to the people we hire to manage them. Unless and until it can be shown that journalists are adversely impacting our resources, they should be allowed to go about their jobs, whether that is extolling what’s right about our public lands or exposing what’s wrong about them. Denying permits and charging exorbitant daily rates for them is the first wrong that needs to be righted.
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