Let’s all take a breath and step away from the ledge

Tree at Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Tree at Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1/40 second
ISO 400
126 mm

National Forest Service commercial photography policy (it’s not as bad as you think)

I’ve received a number of inquiries (some quite panicked) in the last few days asking my opinion about the “new” National Forest Service policy regarding commercial photography. I’ve actually read some media accounts that imply that simply whipping out your iPhone and snapping a mountain lake risks a $1,000 fine. After doing a little research, I’ve confirmed that this is yet one more example of the media whipping the public into a frenzy by selecting a few facts and presenting them in the most sensational way. Here’s an example: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/news/1000-dollar-fine-for-pictures-in-the-forest.

Not being an expert on the subject, I can’t really say whether there are any factual errors in that article. But I can say that it’s a pretty self-serving (he’s certainly received a lot of attention) distortion of the actual policy I found posted on the National Forest Service website (http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5355613.pdf). Here’s the excerpt from the NFS document that applies to me and my photography:

“Still Photography: A special use permit is required for activities on National Forest System lands when the purpose is to: (1) Promote or advertise a product or service using actors, models, sets, or props that are not part of the site’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities; or (2) Create an image for commercial sale by using sets or props. In addition, a permit may be required if no activities involving actors, models, sets, or props are proposed when: (1) The activity takes place in an area where the general public is not allowed; or (2) In situations in which the Forest Service would incur additional administrative costs to either permit or monitor the activity.

As far as I’m concerned, this policy doesn’t sound unreasonable, nor does it sound like my livelihood is in imminent peril, and I’m pretty sure no one’s photographic life is jeopardized.

As someone who conducts 10-12 photo workshops each year, I’m a strong advocate for reasonable rules and restrictions that protect the natural resources that are the foundation of my business (and my mental health). I have no problem jumping through all the necessary hoops—liability insurance, first aid certification, group size, and so on—and paying the annual fees (usually in the $200-$250 range) that each workshop location’s permit process requires. I also find the people I deal with at these locations to generally be quite helpful, reasonable to deal with, not to mention downright flexible when a unique situation arise (like the time I overlooked an application deadline and didn’t discover my error until the last minute).

It’s interesting that this issue should arise right now, as I’m in Grand Tetons National Park helping Don Smith with his photo workshop here. The talk around town is about a moose that had to be put down a couple of days ago when she broke her leg after being spooked by a hoard of overzealous wildlife photographers. It’s a rare trip that I don’t witness photographers do illegal or foolish things that imperil themselves (not to mention the lives of those who would need to rescue them), frighten or threaten wildlife, and damage the fragile ecosystem. It’s this very small minority of selfish and/or ignorant photographers who put all photographers in a bad light, leaving National Park and Forest authorities no choice but to implement tighter regulation. I’ve spoken up and intervened at times, but I often regret the times that I just shook my head and walked away after witnessing something I knew to be wrong.

So. Would I support the kind of heavy-handed National Forest Service regulations that the media implies is coming our way? Absolutely not. And while I don’t think something like that is imminent, I do wish photographers would do a better job of policing themselves, both by managing their own behavior, and by respectfully speaking up when another photographer behaves irresponsibly before we’re all affected by more restrictive policy and stricter enforcement.

About this image

What better way to demonstrate my lack of concern by posting this image from Inyo National forest. This tree on the dirt road to McGee Creek had been on my radar for several years, but I’d never found the conditions suitable to photograph it. But following an afternoon fall color shoot at the creek, the vestiges of sunset lit these tilde-shaped clouds. I knew exactly where I wanted to be but wasn’t sure I had time to get there. I raced down the road, pulled my truck to the side, and had time for just a couple of frames before the color faded.

Update: September 25, 2014

A National Forest Gallery

12 Comments on “Let’s all take a breath and step away from the ledge

    • Thanks, Doug, that’s a good article. My biggest problem with the whole permit process has come with over-zealous implementation by individuals—I had a particularly bad experience with an inexperienced ranger in Zion. I think their heart is in the right place at the upper and middle administration level, this whole firestorm will enlighten the boots on the ground in the Forest Service and National Park Service.

  1. Gary, It is basically a panic attack started by The Oregonian Newspaper who did not really research it well. It really done not effect us.
    By the way, I saw you and your group at the Barns yesterday. Looks like we might see some rain tomorrow.


    • Thanks, John, I didn’t know where it started. This is a great illustration of why we should temper our reaction to anything that sounds unbelievable until we take the time to get all the facts. It seems many (most?) people will feed the frenzy by simply passing the information along.

      I’ll be out of here tomorrow morning so I can head to the Eastern Sierra on Sunday for my workshop that starts Monday. It’s just that time of year.

      • Well said, Gary. I read Don’s post on FB this evening and am again mortified….I have seen idiots with cameras far too many times….no sense, no discretion, no curtesy, no excuse!! Anyway, good luck on the East Side 🙂

  2. Excellent article but it cuts off the right margin on my iPad air running iOS 8. Formatting issue?

  3. Reblogged this on Starlisa Black Photography and commented:
    Regarding the big hoorah about the photography permits for National Forests, here is a well written blog post from a workshop photographer on the subject that might help relieve some minds. ALthough I still think the wording of the regulations leaves too much to chance.

  4. This is something I have blogged about also, watching the sequence of panic, the retraction of statements made by Forest Service managers, etc… yes a lot of over reaction but there is still some ambiguous terms in the regs that give too much latitude to the above mentioned “boots on the ground” enforcers individually. Some friends of mine had a small meet up, about 4 people, and got harrassed by the local agents. I am going to add your blog to my post of article links on the subject as another point of view, and thank you for your excellent writing.

    • Thanks, Starlisa. I agree that the government agencies need to be more consistent in their interpretation and enforcement of these polices. In Yosemite I had a ranger stop his truck and walk down to where I had my group shooting beside the Merced River—I reached for my permit (I was fully compliant), but he just wanted to chat about photography and never asked if I had a permit. On the other hand, in Zion a Ranger actually refused to allow Don and me to hike to the Subway (he was waiting for us at 5:30 a.m. in the trailhead parking lot), even though the workshop had ended the prior day and we had valid permits to do the hike that day. He kept insisting that our hike was part of the workshop, even after we showed him a schedule that proved the workshop had indeed ended the prior morning.

  5. Pingback: Restriction of Photographic rights in National Forests? | Starlisa Black Photography

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