Idaho's whitewater rivers are incredible. I've been fortunate to have floated many of them on personal trips or for shoots with Outdoor Idaho. For many years the Selway was near the top of my list as a must do trip. But getting a private permit to actually raft the Selway is tough. Thousands of people apply each year for just sixty private launches.
A few years ago a group of friends nabbed a Selway permit and I was finally able to get on the mysterious Selway. It was a memorable trip, not just because of the pristine scenery and challenging rapids but also because we saw very few people during the entire float. The one launch a day policy really keeps the numbers down.
When we came up with the idea of fifty years of wilderness for Outdoor Idaho, I knew returning to the Selway would be a wonderful assignment. It's a perfect waterway to take you into the heart of the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness.
The first thing we had to do though was to go through the lengthy process of getting a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to videotape in the any of Idaho's wilderness areas. Once that was finally approved we started making plans to document a trip down this magical river.
One of the newer tools we've been using for shooting river trips in recent years are go-pro cameras. They're small, light and most importantly waterproof. I remember shooting many river trips with our larger cameras and having to hurriedly put them away as we approached larger rapids.
That's not necessary with the go-pros. They deal with waves and can be hand held on a pole, strapped to a life-vest, put on a helmet or rigged at any other angle you can think of. Finding that perfect angle was we were going for on this trip. The shot from the front of the boat or from the guide's seat is nice but we were hoping for more. We wanted to place a camera high and at the back of the boat so we could see the whole raft going through the big rapids. Securing even a small camera in that position is a challenge.
Fortunately our videographer for the shoot, Dave Butler, is also a part-time river guide who had given this some thought. He brought some curved metal pipe, heavy tape, and many straps and accessories to get the camera where we wanted it. So before we reached Ladle, Wolf Creek and some of the bigger rapids we spent quite a bit of time working on rigging the go-pro and hoping it would both stay on the raft and provide a stable well framed shot.
We put it behind lead guide Dennis Jesse, showed him how to roll the camera just before the rapids and crossed our fingers. After Ladle and some of the other rapids that make up “Moose Juice” we were thrilled that the camera not only stayed in place but also gave us some memorable images.
Of course, we didn't want to do the entire segment with just go-pro footage, so as usual we hauled our large camera along as well. It was safely nestled away in a big waterproof pelican case during rapids and we'd only take it out in calm water, for shots from the shore or once we reached camp and the forest trails. There's no question the larger cameras with their better lenses allow us to gather a greater variety of shots so I'm glad we can still haul them anywhere we see a compelling scene.
We hope we've covered all the angles in this segment so viewers who've never had a chance to experience this wilderness waterway can get a little taste of what makes a Selway River trip one of the best adventures in the state.
What if, every time you wanted to conduct an interview near the Henry's Fork, you first had to get a permit from the Forest Service?
What if you wanted to do a story on the impact of wolves on elk in the national forest, but needed first to clear it with a public information officer who would charge you a fee?
What if you wanted to do a story on the failure of trail maintenance in the Wilderness, and that same public information officer said, “Sorry, that's not the kind of story we think is appropriate”?
Don't laugh. Until the chief of the Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, stepped in, that looked to be our future. And we were alarmed.
One of the strengths of Outdoor Idaho is its coverage of resource issues… salmon and wildfires, wolves and elk and noxious weeds... the kind of stories that aren't exactly breaking news but are still important to many Idahoans.
Earlier this month one of our reporters called a Forest Service office in eastern Idaho, looking to interview a botanist. She was told she first had to get permission to film on Forest Service land, since it wasn't “breaking news.”
Say What?!! We've been doing Outdoor Idaho for more than 30 years, and in that time have interviewed all manner of Forest Service official on every conceivable topic in every type of terrain in Idaho.
But, according to a Forest Service directive that seemed to grant the federal agency the power to determine the worthiness of ‘news,’ some rangers in some Idaho forests were arguing, if it's not “breaking news” as defined by them, then it becomes “commercial filming” subject to their control. In other words, the only exemption for us on the 20 million acres administered by the Forest Service was breaking news.
We said “Whoa!” (Actually, we said a lot more, but, hey, we're public television.)
Over in Oregon, a similar program, Oregon Field Guide, was experiencing the same problems. As OFG producer Ed Jahn told me, “We keep getting told we're not a newsgathering organization. That's been our fight with them all along.”
Let's face it, very little that happens in the forest is “breaking news.” Most of the big policy issues on public lands are ongoing in nature. For example, the recovery of forest land from a massive fire is hardly breaking news; neither is the impact of wolves on ungulates, or snowmobiles on wolverines, or the effect of spotted knapweed on forest health. Yet our coverage of these stories is critical to public understanding and can best be covered in documentary-style news forms.
For the Forest Service to not recognize what we do as news, we believe, betrayed a fundamental lack of familiarity with the essential nature of news coverage.
And then to characterize what we do as “commercial filming” — well, they obviously have not watched our pledge drives!
IdahoPTV is a government entity of the State of Idaho under the Idaho State Board of Education. As a government entity, we are prohibited from engaging in commercial activity, including commercial filming. We are also deemed to be a non-commercial, non-profit, tax-exempt organization by the Internal Revenue Service. Moreover, IdahoPTV is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a non-commercial, educational television station. Our FCC license prohibits us from airing commercials or productions for commercial purposes. “Commercial filming,” therefore, goes against the very nature of our FCC license, and we do not engage in it. Period.
But back to the issue that riled up every news media in the West: the First Amendment... as in, “Congress shall make no law… abridging freedom of speech or of the press.”
By only exempting “breaking news,” the Forest Service was unconstitutionally restricting the First Amendment right of journalists to cover public policy issues on the public's lands. We saw it as a clear attempt to regulate the news media, something outlawed by the Constitution.
In some ways, this was déjà vu all over again for us. In 2010, we wanted to film some students learning about wilderness techniques in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. We were told on a Monday that we could not film in wilderness. That angered not only Bethine Church, but also the governor and our congressional delegation. On Friday of that same week, the directive from on high changed, allowing us to film young folks learning about the crosscut saw and the Pulaski.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn't mention a bright spot in all this. Working with Forest Service officials Andy Brunelle, Dave Olson, and Erin O'Connor, this summer we got an unprecedented special use permit for four Wilderness areas across multiple National Forest locations and two Forest Service regions. This has allowed us to produce our hour-long “50 Years of Wilderness” documentary, airing December 7th. One thing I have learned in this process... there are some good folks out there who understand the importance of collaboration, impact on the land, and the First Amendment, and I salute them.
But back to the broader issue. I don't think the federal government has any business in the news business, and that it is overreaching when it tries to define news so narrowly.
I applaud Chief Tidwell for realizing that the directive needed some serious re-writing before it's adopted. To us, he makes a lot of sense!