Don't Take That Photo! The U.S. Forest Service Might Fine You $1,000

Better be careful about what you do with that photo you just took in a U.S. Forest (Photo: Thinkstock)

Hey hikers, that scenic forest photo you just posted on Instagram may cost you a thousand dollar fine. According to a proposed update to U.S. Forest Service regulations, still photography or video taken in any of its 439 Federal Wilderness Areas is subject to permitting (costing up to $1,500) or you can face a $1,000 fine per photo.

A little-noticed USFS “interim rule” has been in place for four years, and is now being updated to include new restrictions on vaguely defined “commercial filming” in wilderness areas. The new regulation was set to go into effect at the end of October, but due to a recent social media and political uproar, the USFS has graciously allowed the public to comment on the regulation an extra month until December 3. You can post your opinions their website, but keep in mind, the USFS says it will merely “consider such input” but it “may not be implemented, and we wish for the public to understand that.”

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The U.S. Forest Service is cracking down (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)

According to the text of the regulation, the USFS requires a permit for any photography that “uses models, sets, or props that are not a part of the site’s natural or cultural resources.” So technically, if your mom in your hiking photo, she’s a model, and you owe USFS a thousand bucks. Want to take a picture of your backpack on top of a summit? Sorry, that’s a prop, fork over another grand.

If you want to follow the rules and get a permit, guess what, the Forest Service is able to approve what sort of message your photo or video will deliver. From the updated regulations, photo or video must have: “a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness…”

So it’s now federally mandated you must enjoy your hike — Smokey the Bear will tolerate no malingerers. The USFS says it is also permissible for video to promote “other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” You better hold your iPhone steady, or else your blurry photo might be judged to not have enough “scenic value” for Forest Service approval.

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Might want to rethink taking a picture in Sequoia National Forest (Photo: Thinkstock)

Perhaps the initial reasoning behind the rule was to keep major Hollywood film crews from sneaking into a wilderness and clear-cutting a forest for the next Jurassic Park sequel without a permit. Except this scenario never actually happened, nor is anyone proposing it.

According to the Oregonian story that launched the current uproar, Forest Service Wilderness Director Liz Close “didn’t cite any real-life examples of why the policy is needed or what problems it’s addressing. She didn’t know whether any media outlets had applied for permits in the last four years.”

Politicians, including Oregon congressman Oregon Greg Walden and Montana’s Republican and Democratic party representatives, have publicly called out the Forest Service for “the implications this [rule] has for Americans’ First Amendment freedoms of speech and press.”

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In response Forest Service agency chief Tom Tidwell claimed via a news release that the “Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment,” and that the rules don’t apply to news coverage or recreational photography, and that the permits would “only” be $800. Despite Tidwell’s claims, Idaho Public Television was denied access to film on Forest Service lands for a prior project based on the regulation, and the text of the rules give no definition or distinction between recreational, commercial, or news photography or video.

When the discrepancy between Tidwell’s free speech claims and the actual wording of the regulation were brought up to him in an interview, he said: “This is an example of where we need to clarify.”

So if you would like to help Mr. Tidwell clarify the rules on who can take photos of trees in a public forest, feel free to share your views on the Forest Service comment page (which may be ignored), this Yahoo webpage (which will certainly be ignored) or better yet, to your Congressional representatives that actually control the actions of the U.S. Forest Service.

WATCH: Forest Service Proposes Rule Changes

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