Video cameras are a wilderness no-no

Marty Trillhaase
June 17, 2010
Lewiston Morning Tribune

There's nothing pure about America's wilderness laws.

Congress designates these areas as being "untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Yet you'll find grandfathered provisions allowing pilots to land on backcountry airstrips or jet boats to travel up and down rivers.


There's more.

Last month, Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Frank Guzman blocked Idaho Public Television's request to send a camera operator on foot into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to film 15 members of the Student Conservation Association in action.

Because Idaho Public TV sells DVDs of its "Outdoor Idaho" program, Guzman said, "this sort of filming is commercial, and thus not allowed in the wilderness."

All of which was news to Idaho Public Television. Public TV had filmed in wilderness areas before and the public broadcaster's colleagues in other states, notably Oregon, continued to have access to federal wilderness areas. After Gov. C. L. (Butch) Otter and Congressmen Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, complained to Guzman's superiors, the decision was reversed.

But an interim plan that will guide access into the wilderness for the next 18 months as a permanent policy takes shape still leaves matters so unclear that individual Forest Service officials may exercise more discretion than they deserve.

Nobody wants a film crew trampling into a pristine area or exploiting a wilderness. The 1964 law equates commercial exploitation of these areas with the building of roads. Both are banned.

But the interim policy still leaves unsettled the status of noncommercial filming "other than ... still photography." Digital cameras are capable of recording video in high-definition dimensions. So what does this protocol mean?

The policy also would bow to noncommercial video crews who have "a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological and other features of scientific, education, scenic or historical value."

What if a a film crew aims to expose mismanagement or abuse of a wilderness area? Can the Forest Service stop that?

How about the application of a lobby that plans to use video in an advertising campaign against adding more lands to the national wilderness system? Could the Forest Service block it on the grounds that it's not promoting the "use and enjoyment" of wilderness areas?

Another section extends to the Forest Service discretion to allow video crews inside the wilderness when "there are no suitable locations outside of a wilderness area." Is it much of a leap to imagine the Forest Service encouraging production crews to "fake it" by pretending to be shooting video inside a wilderness when they're actually outside?

Throw in the matter of the First Amendment. When it comes to obviously breaking news - such as a forest fire - news crews have been allowed entry to a wilderness. Past that, however, it gets complicated. Who defines what is "breaking" news? What is a developing news story or even a feature? Should a government bureaucracy have that kind of authority?

If Oregon public television has access to wilderness in that state and the standard is shifting in Idaho, then it's fairly obvious the Forest Service is not of one mind on this. It's also under pressure from groups, such as the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, which consider the interim policy too lenient.

There's the risk of inconsistency and arbitrariness. The last thing anybody wants is a policy so vague that it leaves local Forest Service officials with their own veto stamps over political and noncommercial speech. If a plane can land in the wilderness, shouldn't someone be allowed to film it?

Originally posted at

The Opinion posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.

Return to Idaho Public Television in the News