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Forest Service Under Fire For New Media Permit Rules

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The U.S. Forest Service says if you want to shoot photos or video on Forest Service land, you're going to need a permit. Many media organizations, including public broadcasters, raised a lot of concerns. They say regulation would be in conflict with the First Amendment. As Scott Graf of Boise State Public Radio reports, the agency says the rule is being misinterpreted.

SCOTT GRAF, BYLINE: News outlets are upset because they believe the rule means they will have to ask Forest Service permission to do their jobs on public lands. Betsy Russell is head of the Idaho Press Club and a newspaper reporter in Boise. She's among those who find the proposal alarming.

BETSY RUSSELL: It seems to clearly violate the First Amendment and to put federal officials in the position of deciding which news stories should be reported and which should not. That's just not appropriate, not in the United States of America.

GRAF: Proposing restrictions that could limit the news media's access is a good way to get into the news. The story spread quickly this week and Forest Service head Tom Tidwell spent a good chunk of yesterday in damage control. He says, the goal of the proposed rule is to protect against commercial interests - say, a Hollywood movie crew from damaging public lands.

TOM TIDWELL: If it's a news story, there's no problem - whether it's breaking news, whether it's background news, whether it's B-roll news or if it's a series. If it's news, we don't consider that to fall under the commercial activity.

GRAF: The Forest Service first introduced the rule on a temporary basis four years ago. Tidwell says, the idea was to provide consistency in the agency's procedures for granting access.

TIDWELL: Depending where you're at in the country, whether you're a reporter, a journalist or a commercial filmmaker, when you would ask to be able to do your activity, you'd get a different answer.

GRAF: So how does the language in the actual proposal do in reflecting the Forest Service's goal?

CHUCK BROWN: Absolutely horrible.

GRAF: Chuck Brown is an Idaho attorney who's represented news outlets in several Western states over his 37-year career.

BROWN: All they are doing is sending out alarming language that isn't streamlined to their goal whatsoever.

GRAF: Brown says, as it's written, he does not think the Forest Service's proposal would stand up to a legal challenge. And as the controversy stirs, the chances of the rule being rewritten seem to go up by the day. The Forest Service has said, it is committed to matching the rule's language with the agency's intent. For NPR News, I'm Scott Graf in Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott comes to BSPR from WFAE in Charlotte, N.C., where he served as local host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” for the past eight years. He began his new position as Morning Edition Host/Senior Editor for BSPR in 2012.

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