Our view: Fees for recording on public lands puts wolf at First Amendment door
If a tree falls in the forest and someone records it with a video camera or audio device, does it make a sound? And is it news? The answer to the first question is obvious. The second is murkier than the parable about the falling tree with no one...
If a tree falls in the forest and someone records it with a video camera or audio device, does it make a sound? And is it news?
The answer to the first question is obvious. The second is murkier than the parable about the falling tree with no one around to hear it.
Why does it matter? Well, if you're the person doing the recording and the forest is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Interior, it's a matter of whether you'll have to pay a $200 fee or not. Under Interior Department rules, journalists and visitors to public lands are allowed to shoot or record pretty much whatever they want, as long as it's for news-gatheringpurposes or noncommercial private use.
Commercial entities, such as movie crews or Chevy 4WD truck commercial producers, must pay a fee. The main reason is that large production sets can affect and even damage the environments serving as the backdrops for their for-profit enterprises.
But when does a park visitor become a journalist, and when does a journalist become a commercial entity?
"I was going to interview a wolf biologist in Yellowstone for a public radio program. They said I needed a $200 permit application fee," New York radio journalist Kinna Ohman told the News Tribune editorial page staff yesterday.
Though Ohman was reporting for a bona-fide nonprofit radio program -- the Environment Report, produced partially in Duluth and aired nationally, with its local broadcast on KUMD-FM -- her status as a freelancer qualified her as a commercial entity in the eyes of the National Park Service. Her Oct. 11 encounter with park service brass caught the attention of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
"We think these rules impinge on legitimate news coverage," said Joe Davis, the editor of the society's news-letter.
While Davis said his group doesn't disagree with the need to protect park resources, he complained the rules lump everyone from freelance journalists to nonprofit documentarians into the commercial category and that the Interior Department's definition of news gathering is restricted to just breaking news, such as forest fires.
"If you want to talk about the impact of wolves on public lands, or even record their howls, you've got to pay a fee," he said. "The law makes no mention of audio recording. It was originally meant to be film soundtracks."
In reality, Davis said, even those who have never practiced journalism can become news gatherers, such as a camper who records the embers of what may turn out to be a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness fire on a cell phone.
"Has he committed a crime if he sells it?" Davis asked.
By happenstance, Ohman's rejection came just as the park service was completing a round of public comment about the policies. The last day to do so is today.
National Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said from Washington that he agrees with some of the points raised by the environmental journalists group, which has attracted several other media professional associations to its cause. "We'll look at the issues that people raise. Any public comment postmarked by [today] will get reviewed," he said.
But the law, signed by President Clinton in 2000, has a solid basis.
"Here in D.C., a lot of people want their wedding pictures taken in front of the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument," Olson said. "Sometimes, there are a lot of weddings with photographers with multiple lights, tripods and assistants. Itdoes get in the way of regular visitors."
And of nonprofit vs. commercial news, he added: "All news gathering is a commercial venture. Are we going to charge fees to the Duluth News Tribune or the Bismarck Tribune [Olson's former newspaper]? Where do we apply the policy?"
Certainly not for someone recording wolves.