Updated: Is The U.S Forest Service About To Charge Photographers To Take Photos?

Today, the team at Oregon Live exposed a new rule proposed by the United States Forest Service, that, if passed, will take effect in November. The rule calls for any member of the "media" to first apply for a permit before being allowed to take photos or video on 193 million acres of designated wilderness areas. Oh, and by the way, the permit costs $1,500.

UPDATE: According to Oregon Live, the United States Forest Service has announced that is delaying implementation of the rule due to the large public outcry. I have reached out to the USFS and will continue to update this article as more information becomes available.

UPDATE TWO: United States Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers issued a statement announcing the delay is actually to extend the comment period by one month, to December 3, 2014. The USFS will also set up meetings to address concerns and field questions by the media and public. 

Oregon Live has a informative list of 7 things you need to know about this rule, based on writer Rob Davis' research and understanding. As it turns out, the rules are already in place, and have been for 48 months, but are only now being turned into law. This rule can also apply to non profit organizations and private citizens who use a photo or video to sell something. 

As I have stated, probably the most troubling aspect of this permit system is that the USFS has the ability to grant or deny any permit as it sees fit. Liz Close, USFS acting wilderness director, was quoted as saying "If you were engaged on reporting that was in support of wilderness characteristics, that would be permitted,"

The question is, what if I am reporting on the Forest Services neglect to our public lands?

UPDATE THREE: According to the Washington Post, Tom Tidwell, chief of the United States Forest Service says “If you’re news media, it has no effect at all,” he said. “If you’re a private individual, this doesn’t apply. Individuals who want to shoot on wild lands won’t need a permit, even if they plan to sell their photographs, except if it involves props. Fees for permits vary by size. Groups of up to three will pay $10 a day, while crews of 80 shooting movies usually pay around $800 a day”

Ok, so it sounds like we will finally get some clarification on this issue. The question is, why wasn't the above stance conveyed by the first two high ranking officials of the USFS to be questioned?

Original Story Below

But the good news is, if you get caught, it is only a $1,000 fine, $500 less than the permit cost. This is just one of the distorted aspects to this proposed rule. The other being that the Forest Service doesn't detail what they consider to be a "commercial" entity. If I go into one of the almost 200 million acres of wilderness under control of the USFS and take a overbaked HDR photo with my iPhone 6 Plus, am I not allowed to sell this as a print for a small profit? Also, if I do need to pay the $1,500 permit fee for this right, why is my permit the same dollar amount as REI who has a film crew of 70 people overtaking the pristine backcountry for 12 hours on a beautiful summer day?

But what if I am writing a piece for Fstoppers about how the U.S. Forest Service has neglected a part of their wilderness area? Since I need approval from the USFS before I can take photos in this particular location, do I really think they will grant me a permit once I tell them what the story is about?

Will they only grant requests that look favorably upon the Forest Service?

And Eric Vilas-Boas on Esquire found some irony regarding the USFS choice of tweet given today's news. 

Who knows if AdCouncil, which produced it, paid $1,500 for a permit, but that money would prevent a lot of people from doing so.

There is no question that us nature and landscape photographers want to do anything we can to keep our wilderness intact for future generations, but with complicated and vague rules like this, no one wins, including the United States Forest Service, who will lose it's best marketing tool. Word of mouth and beautiful photos and videos from artists who don't have an extra $1,500 laying around.

The Forest Service is opening this to public discussion however, so let them know what you think.

[via Oregon Live]

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Nick Viton's picture

I'd rather get a used D610 than get a pictures of some trees and rocks (Heck, I could even get a used car for 1500!). But that's just me.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

I don't see how they could possibly collect this from anyone unless they come in with a large crew and ton of equipment. This is still really disappointing because as someone who shoots a lot of nature and landscape, I certainly don't have an extra $1500 just laying around. I may go out and shoot something I can sell, or I may not get anything at all and just lost 2 months rent. Surely there is a better way for them to raise money for operations. Charging, say $20, to be able to photograph in the forests is something that wouldn't break the bank and they'd probably get more people willing to pay, therefore collecting more money than on a $1500 fee.

Restricting photography inside the parks and forests, either by unreasonable fees or whatever legal hoops they come up with, is the single most harmful thing they could do. The parks and forests were established to be protected and unless people can see them, they don't care as much to protect them. One of the reasons the national parks have so many visitors is because of the photographs people see. Photographers are instrumental in protecting these areas and operations.

Bavarian DNA's picture

I totally agree with you. Damn, why this this happening now, when i decided to visit the USA and 70 % of my main visit is to see and photograph the National parks and especially Oregon Parks. This is really ridiculous decision. Anyways, whats the Tax is for in this case ? shouldn't be part of the tax paid by citizens goes to those services ?. Im just wondering and I'm not a US citizen.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

Funding depends on which park you visit and which agency manages it. Some of the parks have admission and are tax funded, some are free and are tax funded. The parks are managed on a federal, state, or county level. Each jurisdiction has a budget for its parks and recreational areas. Many times the federal government gives money to the states to help them manage their parks as well. It's basically a mess that 10 years in accounting still leaves me scratching my head.

Have a great time on your trip! I visited the Oregon/Cali coast several years ago to see the redwoods and it was life changing :)

Michael Bonocore's picture

Bavarian, as much as this outrages all of us, the chances of the USPS being able to properly enforce this, especially in remote locations, is next to impossible. But, yeah, you don't want to be the one guy they try to make an example of :)

Bavarian DNA's picture

Hehe, this is the last thing in my list to be an example of this new law :), though i think this is gonna be applied for business photographers and companies, not for tourist photographers, i hope I'm right about this and since I'm not a US citizen that it doesn't apply on me ;-). you know, i don't mind paying let say a 100$ for National parks entrance fees as long as i can enjoy my stay there and take photographs as much as i want.

I believe in giving and taking philosophy.

Christopher Nolan's picture

What exactly is media? Also, this is public land, right? Are the same rules applied to other public places? Isn't shooting in public free reign, except for tripods and lighting stands in certain cities?

james johnson's picture

Yes, the same rules are applied to other public spaces.


james johnson's picture

Two things. First, the fees are up to $1500, not a flat rate.

Second, I am sure this is meant to be aimed at "commercial" work in the sense of people bringing in crews, trucks, lighting, personnel and other things that could damage the natural area . And if that is the case, there needs to be fees for that (for possible clean up, rangers/custodians present to monitor them, etc.) just like there are in parks and other natural areas.

My guess is this another case of someone who doesn't quite understand the language writing the rules. Clarification is in order, and the Forest Service should be made aware of the problems with the language, but there is nothing outrageous about the rule itself.

Let's try not to get our collective panties in a bunch over something that doesn't deserve it.

Christopher Nolan's picture

ah yes, .... good points!

Michael Rael's picture

"Commercial" brings up another problem. In my experience, some land managers (BLM) are interpreting commercial to be any business-related activity, which is not what the law says. (I've had a BLM official flat out tell me all businesses are commercial, and that their use is therefore commercial, and would need a permit no matter the activity.) For example, check out BLMs Instruction Memo and attachments here: http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/regulations/Instruction_Memos_and_Bulle...

For wilderness areas, I agree a little more protection may be in order, which may be why the Forest Service isn't grouped with NPS, BLM, and F&W in the CFR regarding photography.

My point is that the land managers in the field will probably err on the side of more restrictive instead of more freedom when interpreting rules.

I believe your point is correct in that the laws are, and should be, based on impact, both the preservation of the land and the enjoyment of the public. A large crew with all the riggings could impact other users by blocking off part of the land, permit required. A personal portrait photography shoot which is typically to shoot a few pics, walk to another spot, shoot again, thereby not blocking off any one spot for an extended time, no permit. Others can wait a couple of minutes to enjoy that particular spot.

Michael Bonocore's picture

James, I totally agree...and do not have a problem with permits for large commercial shoots like you describe. But, the rule is so horribly written, lays out no details on what they consider to be "media" and leaves entirely too much up to the local officials. That's where my disappointment. There is no worse feeling than being in some beautiful location, at peace with just you, yourself and your camera, and be looking over your shoulder the whole time thinking that you are doing something wrong.

Marcus Taylor's picture

I think a large part of the confusion lies in how they define "still photography". This is the relevant definition from current regulations:

"f. Still Photography. The use of photographic equipment to capture still images on film, digital format, and other similar technologies on NFS lands that:
(1) Takes place at a location where members of the public are generally not allowed or where additional administrative costs are likely, or
(2) Uses models, sets, or props that are not a part of the site’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities."

I suspect this doesn't apply to the vast majority of photos shot on forest service land.

Michael Bonocore's picture

Awesome info Marcus!

Michael Bonocore's picture

But this is where the whole thing is even more backwards. Liz Close, the Forest Service's acting wilderness director, when interviewed, never mentions the definitions of Still Photography. Either she is intentionally trying to make it as cloudy as possible, or she doesn't know what the USFS considers still photography. Either situation should be cause for concern about the state of the USFS.

Brian Birch's picture

I wonder if Ansel Adams would have been keen on paying for the privilege of creating the images that have brought so much attention these areas.

Will McKay's picture

$1500? Yeah right...

Matt Granz's picture

It's the vague language that concerns me. I do understand the need to control things to keep the areas nice, and the recent craze with GoPros and Quadcopters can threaten the pristine nature of nature, but I have been on the other end of park rangers who abuse their authority and I can see this going against the small guy who goes out and shoots, and tries to sell pics. Hopefully this update to the pre-existing legislation that Mary Wagner and her cronies made will not be detrimental to us who use photography to make a small living and enjoy nature in the process.

Michael Bonocore's picture

UPDATE: According to Oregon Live, the United States Forest Service has announced that is delaying implementation of the rule due to the large public outcry. I have reached out to the USFS and will contuinue to update this article as more information becomes available.

Rich Charpentier's picture

Thanks for following this Michael. It's not done yet. The press release issued yesterday to clarify things is still vague. http://1.usa.gov/1BgAAhv The definition of "commercial" from the initial directive is concerning.

Kevin Sutton's picture

Just another blatant money grab. I do not make a living off of photography and I am not going to pony up 1500.00 to photograph there on small shoots (me, one camera, hot shoe flash, and possibly a model). These areas are paid for by the taxes of the people in those areas and elsewhere. The Govt. works for us not the other way around. Large commercial shoots I can see that...they can build the fee into their quotes. Looking forward to any further updates on this story.

Joshua Carlisle's picture

When I first saw this coming across social media yesterday I immediately jumped onto the government sites to start reading some of the regulations to see if this was just an over reaction. The irony is it would seem they are making this change to add more clarity to the existing regulations but are instead adding more ambiguity. I think the main issue at place is their definition and use of "Commercial" as the metric for permit. Permits are intended to limit access to a limited resource or protect a resource within the forest\park. I think that permits should not be issued solely on the basis of whether the end resulting media is commercial or not but instead on the impact it has on a protected\limited resource or the impact on forest services. There are many commercial activities that add no additional burden to resources more then a standard visitor - case in point for Landscape photographers such as myself. I think this would put them more in line with the intent behind the permit. With all that in mind I won't attempt to go into the complexity and arbitrary rules that appear to be in place already within the Forest Service that prevent many photography workshops and other endeavors from even bothering to work within forest lands - can you imagine that being applied to all photography - it's all a totally insane proposition!

August Miller's picture

There are many other smaller mid sized companies and individual trying to work within the commercial realm and with the tight budget restrictions that many commercial photographers work under today adding $1500 to a bid may make it a deal breaker. And besides it is seriously doubtful that a commercial group shooting for REI or anyone else is going to have any more negative impact on the environment of these wild places than the hordes of tourist already trampling through them. In my experience most if not all of them are extremely careful about their environmental "footprint". Ironically we have many of these iconic National and State Parks such as Yellowstone (In particular) because of the photographic imagery of William Henry Jackson which was shown to congress to help persuade them to save these majestic places for future generations.

Chris Blair's picture

There are lots of rules, some are easier to enforce than others.

Johan Kritzinger's picture

Ridiculous! I sincerely hope this is someone trolling.......
I'm going to petition to have a law passed so that anyone walking past my house on the sidewalk must pay for the air they breathe and to look at my house will cost more.
This is what's wrong with the world. we over regulate and over legislate everything. If EVERYONE just used a little common sense (yes, including that idiot that spoils things for everyone by being too greedy and tries to get away with something just because it is not a sub-clause to an exising law), acted with more consideration and empathy, what a great world this would be.
That's it, I think I'll emigrate back to Mars now. But then, I'd probably have to pay to take a pic of the rovers......
Jennifer, I'm with you, $10-20 is a better idea. Call it a day visitors fee or whatever. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but are these forrests not government assets, meaning that THEY BELONG TO THE CITIZENS and the
Forrest Service is appointed to look after this resource for the citizens by the government voted in to power by said citizens?

Rich Charpentier's picture

Unfortunately this isn't someone trolling the net. And the issue isn't resolved yet. The USFS put out a press release last night to clarify, but it's still not clear. http://1.usa.gov/1BgAAhv They're very clear, they don't want to be perceived as infringing on the First Amendment, but the concept of "commercial still photography" is not clear at all.

"The fact is, the directive pertains to commercial photography and filming only – if you’re there to gather news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required. We take your First Amendment rights very seriously,” said Tidwell. “We’re looking forward to talking with journalists and concerned citizens to help allay some of the concerns we’ve been hearing and clarify what’s covered by this proposed directive.”

I think they really need to clarify on commercial photography. If you're a landscape photographer showing in a gallery, your images are commercial. So, where do such photographers fall in a permit system? Not clear.

Aimee Tetreault's picture

Dude. I love you guys - but please evaluate all the details. Permits for commercial work have been required for USFS for ages - but they're not going to confiscate your cell phone.


Joe Kania's picture

Thanks, Aimee Tetreault for that link that explains it so much better than anything else I've read about this. Also missing from this discussion is that the permitting is only in regards to WILDERNESS areas, which are the most protected of USFS lands, no mechanical vehicles (bikes included), no development, no roads, just trails accessible by foot and horseback. They are usually some of the most rugged mountain terrain as well. This seems to be to protect those places from larger crews which can impact a wilderness area unfavorably. I've seen the old application for filming on USFS lands and it was not a simple "write your name and go shoot whatever you want" type of permit, they are looking for scope of project and potential impacts to the land, and that wasn't even necessarily for a wilderness area which is watched even more carefully. One further distinction is that wilderness areas are administered by the USFS, a division of the USDA, while national parks and BLM fall under the Dept of Interior, and would not be subject to this same permitting process.

james johnson's picture

When did we photographers become a group of histrionic divas crying about hypothetical situations that may not even happen?

You're concerned? Then do a little research and make your voice known, but quit crying about how you are going to be abused/mistreated/run out of business.

Seriously, this story has been so overblown. Permits are a normal part of business and have been for a very long time. The system and language may need to be tweaked, but quit acting like this is some sort of travesty.

E W's picture

So much misinformation! Call your Congressman or Senator and ask for a copy of Congressional Research Service report #R43267, "Commercial Filming and Photography on Federal Lands" by Laura B. Comay.

The report contains a good explanation of the history, reasoning, and fee schedule - including key facts such as "Still photography does not always require a permit or fee. The law directs that a photography permit or fee is required only if the activity takes place in an area that is not ordinarily open to the public, if additional administrative costs are likely, or if models or props other than the unit’s own
resources are used."

Also, under the proposed fee schedule, the $1,500 fee applies only if a COMMERCIAL shoot uses 70+ people a day. Still photography using 30+ people costs $450 a day. Commercial filming using 1-3 people, camera and tripod is only $10/day or $250/month. Still photography using 1-3, camera and tripod only $10/day or $250/month.

John Magana's picture

Outrageous. The greed in the country knows no bounds.

Brendan Arsenault's picture

By props, what does it mean?

Denise (little dove) Self's picture

There should be no permits to take pictures, we live in the United States not in a dictator country.
We have the freedom of speech we have the freedom to take pictures. There are lots of photographers and people on vacations that wants to take pictures. Yellowstone park and other places makes money, don't
need permits to take pictures of the beautiful parks, in fact what people post on facebook and other sites
encourages others to visit these places.

Charge those who set fire to the Federal lands and parks and does destruction on the land.