June 7, 2010
BOISE, Idaho — The U.S. Forest Service has issued temporary new guidelines on commercial filming that cover some 439 wilderness areas it oversees nationwide, kicking off a fresh round of debate over how best to manage these federally protected preserves.
Some pro-wilderness groups now contend the agency is caving in to political pressure, not basing its decisions on appropriate stewardship of wilderness where mechanized transportation and most commercial enterprise is banned.
Idaho Public Television's "Outdoor Idaho" program was allowed to film student conservation efforts in the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness late last month - but only after Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, complained the Forest Service had inappropriately barred cameras from crossing into the area.
Amid this pressure, National Forest managers are being directed to consider, among other criteria, how a proposed project would spread information about the "enjoyment of wilderness" before issuing a commercial filming permit. They hope this will clarify confusion about when filming is appropriate, and when it isn't.
Andy Stahl, who heads Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an advocacy group, fears the new guidelines will mean more and more intrusive filming in areas set aside starting nearly a half-century ago to prevent America's untrammeled spaces from vanishing.
"The authors of the 1964 Wilderness Act realized...that every day, there would be a new pressure from civilization to push its way into the boundaries of wilderness," Stahl said Monday from Portland, Ore. "Because civilization is inexorable."
The temporary guidelines took effect Thursday - without public announcement - after being approved by Gloria Manning, the agency's associate deputy chief in Washington, D.C. They'll expire Dec. 3, 2011, giving the agency 18 months to craft permanent filming rules.
Previously, National Forest managers had been instructed to issue permits for commercial filming only when the projects contributed "to the purposes for which the wilderness area was established."
Under the new criteria, a special-use permit now may be issued if filming has a "primary objective" of spreading information about the enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, scientific, educational, scenic or historical values; helps preserve the wilderness character; doesn't advertise products or services; and if there aren't suitable film sites outside wilderness."
"As part of the U.S. Forest Service's commitment to protecting sensitive forests while allowing consistent media access to Forest Service land, we moved quickly to provide national guidance to help individual forests consider media access requests after questions emerged from a recent Idaho Public Television request," Leo Kay, a Forest Service spokesman in Washington, D.C., said in a statement issued Monday.
Consistency has been a problem. A similar Oregon Public Broadcasting show regularly gets permission to enter that state's wilderness areas for its film productions. Still, not everybody is pleased: At least one member of the Student Conservation Association trail crew filmed by the "Outdoor Idaho" crew in late May objected to appearing on camera, on grounds it violated the wilderness ethos.
And George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, based in Missoula, Mont., said the Forest Service has no business judging the merits of wilderness filming projects. "The law just says there should be no commercial enterprise," Nickas said. "To have the agency sitting here drafting loopholes is crazy."
Erin O'Connor, a regional Forest Service spokeswoman in Ogden, Utah, said the agency granted permission for the Idaho Public Television crew before the new guidelines emerged, but only after receiving assurances from the taxpayer-funded, noncommercial station that it wouldn't sell videos of the show to generate income.
Station manager Peter Morrill said Monday he has every intention of selling videos - not to generate income but to cover production costs. Morrill added that he has already gotten Forest Service permission to send another "Outdoor Idaho" crew later this month into Idaho's Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to film a show about backcountry pilots.
The News Story posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.