Home of the meek, land of the fee

The Bush administration is trying to hide its mismanagement of federal lands by using new permit requirements and fees to limit filming and photography in national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, a congressional leader charges.

“Maintenance in our national parks, listing of endangered species, fire preparedness and responsible energy development are just a few examples of serious policy failures by the Bush administration,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “Any hint that this new permit and fee structure could limit the free flow of public information regarding the very real consequences of these failures is simply unacceptable.”

Administration officials said there was no effort to limit news coverage.

“There is no intention in these proposed regulations for censorship by the agencies based on content,” said Mitchell Butler, deputy assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife and parks. “In fact, we believe that telling the story of our resources benefits not only our public lands but the visiting public as well.”

Rahall’s committee heard testimony Wednesday on the proposed regulations covering the national parks, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges.

The regulations would require a permit and payment of a fee by those engaging in commercial filming or photography on federal lands. The only exception would be for journalists covering “breaking news.” When the licenses would be required and fees imposed would be up to local land managers.

Critics, including the Society of Environmental Journalists, the National Press Photographers Association and the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said the proposals are unworkable. They said the definition of news is “excessively broad” and the discretion given local officials is excessive.

In addition, critics said the original 2000 law was simply aimed at large Hollywood production companies that were using federal lands. It was never intended to cover journalists working on longer-range projects, documentary filmmakers or freelancers, among others, they said.

The Interior Department is in the midst of finalizing the rules.

“The proposal, as drafted, would give Department of Interior employees excessively broad discretion to define what is and is not news,” said Tony Overman, a photographer with The Olympian and president of the National Press Photographers Association. “The result, of course, would be entirely inconsistent with the government’s constitutional obligation to avoid defining or regulating the collection and reporting of the news and with our government’s tradition of openness and fairness to the press.”

Administration officials defended the proposed regulations and said they simply tracked the original law.

Rahall said the proposed regulations are another example of the “hostility” the administration has shown toward open government.

“Of course there is reason to view the proposed regulations with some skepticism,” he said. “The Bush administration will go down in history as one of the most secretive and least transparent in American history.”

Others testified that there have been ongoing problems, saying the proposed regulations won’t help.

A freelance radio reporter was told by officials at Yellowstone National Park that she would need to secure a permit, pay a fee and have $1 million in liability insurance before she would be permitted into the park to interview an expert on wolves, said Timothy Wheeler, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Wheeler said park officials admitted they had made an error, but he argued the latest proposals could cause even more confusion.

The policies at Yosemite National Park might be the most “blatant intrusion” on journalists’ First Amendment rights, said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Yosemite’s policies permit its managers to condition the granting of a permit for photography on their own determinations that the park “would benefit” from the increased public awareness, Cochran said.

“Under this standard, how could a journalist ever gather footage for an investigative piece that exposes a scandal or criticizes the park’s administration?” Cochran said.

Alaska Rep. Don Young, top Republican on the panel, tangled with Overman after saying that maybe journalists and photographers should pay a flat fee to use the parks just like hunters and fishermen.

“I pay $15 when I go into Mount Rainier (National Park) just like any other member of the public,” said Overman. “Requiring a license amounts to prior restraint on journalists.”

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