U.S. Forest Service says photo permits saga misunderstood

(Reuters) - The U.S. Forest Service has been forced to clarify its position on photography rules for the nation's wild places after a proposed rule change for picture permits prompted fears that visitors could be fined $1,000 for taking snapshots of nature. The agency asked for public feedback this month on a proposal to set criteria for how to vet requests for commercial filming in wilderness areas, as part of what it called a "good faith effort" to ensure they receive the fullest protection. The proposal would make permanent a temporary "directive" that has been in place for four years and covers requirements for commercial shoots, such a movies or television commercials. But it drew criticism that the wording was so vague it could end up being applied to amateurs and bloggers, and even that the proposal infringed on Constitutional liberties. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said late on Thursday he wanted to clear up that the provisions in the draft directive do not apply to media reporters or vacationers. "If you're there to gather news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required. We take your First Amendment rights very seriously," Tidwell said in a statement. "We're looking forward to talking with journalists and concerned citizens to help allay some of the concerns we've been hearing and clarify what's covered by this proposed directive." Given the high level of interest in the case, Tidwell added, the Forest Service has decided to extend the period allowed for public comments by a month, until Dec. 3. Congressionally-designated wilderness areas are protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the agency is responsible for ensuring they remain in their natural condition. It said that professional and amateur photographers do not generally need a permit unless they use models, actors or props, work in areas that are normally off-limits to the public, or incur additional administrative costs. The Forest Service said the cost of commercial permits currently range from about $30 a day for a small three-person team, up to as much as $800 for a large Hollywood production involving a crew of 70 or more. It said the price of $1,500 for a commercial permit cited in some reports was wrong. (Reporting by Daniel Wallis in Denver)

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