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Dear Forest Service: Today’s John Muir shoots video

Let people take all the images they want in wilderness areas.


The U.S. Forest Service has waltzed into a political minefield over its requirement that journalists and bloggers obtain permits in order to shoot pictures and video in congressionally designated wilderness areas. Now the agency appears unsure of where to step next, afraid of triggering another explosion.

Here is some friendly advice to the Forest Service: Abandon course. Scrap the permit system. Let people take all the images they want in wilderness areas and share them far and wide. In fact, start encouraging photographers and videographers to visit wilderness instead of throwing up bureaucratic, legalistic obstacles.

Scores of irate bloggers and reporters have already pointed out that, thanks to the First Amendment, the government doesn’t get to decide what is a legitimate journalistic outlet or what stories are newsworthy.

But I’d like to make a different point. And that is that the American wilderness system itself can benefit greatly from the power of imagery. The mass media should help open the door that introduces people to their wilderness. The images they create can serve as the key.

As our population grows more urban, fewer and fewer Americans have a personal connection to wilderness. That means that wilderness has fewer political advocates for everything from adequate budgets for trail maintenance to new and much-needed wilderness protections.

For several years, I made my living as a journalist and often wrote about my travels in wilderness areas. My wife’s photographs accompanied my magazine articles and book chapters, and often made the sale and grabbed the readers’ eyes. There was nothing new about this.

Way back in 1861, a photographer named Carlton Watkins sent President Abraham Lincoln a collection of remarkable landscape photographs of Yosemite Valley. They helped convince Lincoln to take the initial steps to secure Yosemite for the public good.

More famously and more recently, Ansel Adams shot haunting landscapes of Mount McKinley and El Capitan in black and white in the 1940s-’60s. When I was a kid, I read articles by writers like Ted Trueblood about wilderness in Field & Stream. That was how I was introduced to the entire concept of wilderness — and eventually into a lifetime of advocacy.

Today, I have friends trying to do the same thing, filming their hiking, paddling, horseback rides or hunting and fishing trips. They take pictures and tell stories. The only difference between what they want to do, and what people like me and Trueblood and John Muir did, lies in a matter of frames per second and the artists’ methods of distribution.

Today’s video equipment is perfectly compatible with preserving the wilderness character of the land itself. Cameras are smaller and less obtrusive with each generation.

Like all visitors of the public lands, videographers and photographers should follow the rules to respect the rights of other wilderness travelers and limit their impacts. The Forest Service should make sure they do this. The agency has legitimate authority to limit obtrusive tools like drones or strobe lights.

But the Forest Service should also make sure that Americans in all places have a chance to see the majesty of a grizzly bear digging for marmots in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or glimpse the stunning clarity of the water flowing in the Frank Church-River of No Return, even if only on the screen on their smartphone.

Since the days of Gutenberg, mass media have been dominated by the printed word. That’s changed today. Users are uploading a billion pictures on the Internet every day. The Department of the Interior has more than 300,000 followers on Instagram, the social media platform specializing in sharing images. If the Forest Service wants wilderness to remain relevant, people need to be free to take and share pictures of it, not just words.

Forest Service has a mission: to “care for the land and serve the people.” The agency should recruit image-makers and storytellers to help them do that job, not make it harder.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes in Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].