Dear Forest Service: Today’s John Muir shoots video

October 13, 2014

The US Forest Service has waltzed into a political minefield over its requirement that journalists and bloggers obtain permits to shoot pictures and video in Congressionally designated wilderness areas. The agency appears to not know where to step, lest it trigger another explosion.

Here is some friendly advice: 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 promoting photographers and videographers in wilderness instead of throwing up bureaucratic, legalistic obstacles.

Scores of irate bloggers and reporters have 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 that’s not my point. My point is, the American Wilderness System itself needs the benefits from the power of imagery. The mass media should be a door to introduce people to their wilderness. Images are the key that opens it.

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 fighting for trail maintenance budgets to pushing for new 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 Mt. 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 Magazine. 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 I did, and Trueblood and John Muir did, is a matter of frames per second and their methods of distribution.

Today’s video equipment is perfectly compatible to preserving 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 see the stunning clarity of the water flowing in the Frank Church-River of No Return, even if only via the screen on their smartphone.

Since the days of Gutenberg, mass media was dominated by the printed word. That’s changed. 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 images 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