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!
It's my 15th wedding anniversary. I lay my fly line on the East Fork of the Salmon River at sunset. I help cook dinner on my truck's tailgate turned table. I mingle with every man in camp, but my husband. He's not even here. I'm on the road with Outdoor Idaho. We're heading into the White Clouds to shoot scenics from every route, angle and way possible. It's not exactly the anniversary I had in mind, but it will do.
When Outdoor Idaho producer John Crancer called with the invite, I couldn't say yes fast enough. I rattled off my strengths to prove myself an asset on the crew. I'm running a wilderness race in that area. I'm floating the Middle Fork and chasing salmon close by. I'm in shape on water and on ground. I can carry my fair share of weight while I work. I know how to shoot with four different cameras. Crancer liked what he heard. My husband didn't, but he gets it. We usually have to celebrate our anniversary in the winter because summer is peak shooting season and my production schedule is always in the way of our actual wedding anniversary.
I said ‘I do’ to the trip, met the crew for dinner at Little Boulder Creek trailhead then started hiking the next morning. The first few miles are treeless and steep. It's hot and dusty. I quickly realize the White Clouds kick the endurance right out of you. The elevation, the distance, the bugs. All three try my patience, but I don't give in easily.
The terrain changes about mile four. It's still hot and buggy, but trees start shading our trek and the ground is meadow green instead of desert brown. I'm studying the changes in the landscape when I spot the Cloud's crown jewel—Castle Peak pushing almost 12,000 feet in elevation.
Castle Peak looks like home. I always point myself homeward when I feel lost so I give myself a moment to stare at home before I go into pro mode and dig a camera out of my pack to start shooting footage.
Castle Peak doesn't sidle up on you with a shy introduction. It shoots out of the ground with a look-at-me presence just like Utah's Wasatch Mountains. That's the playground of my childhood. The trunky tug on my heart pulls instantly. I wouldn't trade the Snake River for the Wasatch, but I relish seeing peaks that look like home. That's a comforting feeling when you're the lone woman on the White Clouds crew.
As an outdoor journalist and filmmaker, I spend a lot of time in the woods with men. Most of them hunt and fish and that's the talk around the fire, but the Outdoor Idaho crew talks of more. We all enjoy the outdoors in various forms and tall tales run rapid through basecamp, but we are also lens lovers. We see the world as frames of visual perfection. We compare tips and tricks, brilliance and bumbles. That's our fireside chat until it rains and we all run for cover.
I'm seven unlit miles from the trailhead. There's no easy out so I give myself a pep talk and crawl in my tent. I'm thinking of home as I prepare for a solo sleep in pitch dark. I don't like the dark. Mother Nature must know that. She distracts me with a 12-hour thunderstorm. Lightning illuminates the fabric walls of my tent, rain pours, hail piles, but I stay dry with eyes wide open and limbs unmoving until the White Cloud's and its Castle come calling at daybreak.
We all emerge from our soggy tents with bed head and bad breath. The bed head stays. The bad breath is brushed away as talk of the day brews like camp coffee.
In true shooter fashion we are all grateful it rained during the dark hours. A downpour during daylight shooting hours is heartbreaking. We have no rain when the sun comes up. The shooting festival in the White Clouds is glistening with potential.
We divide into three teams and go our separate ways for the day. I climb closer to Castle Peak to shoot in a meadow. Along the way I mentally wish my husband a happy anniversary. It's a good thing he doesn't mind me spending our wedding anniversary in the woods with seven other men. I decide we should spend an anniversary in the White Clouds together. My husband needs to see peaks that look like home too.