State Game Lands in Tioga County.

This was originally going to be a post on the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s recent user fee proposal, but news in the past day points to a larger topic. As I finished drafting my comments on the Game Commission’s decision to table their user fee motion, I came across this news : “Forest Service says media needs photography permit in wilderness areas”

According to the new rules, which apparently were stealthily approved by the US Forest Service years ago and are just now being applied, “media” have to obtain a permit, at a cost of $1500.00, to photograph in “wilderness areas. ”

Why is this a concern, you may ask? Yeah, its a First Amendment violation, but it doesn’t impact anyone aside from media. Well, as far as the First Amendment goes, “the press” includes anyone who publishes. Technically, both A Taste For The Woods and The New York Times are “media.” So are other blogs and websites. So if I take the canoe trip on the Allegheny River I hope to do, and take photos of the islands downstream from Warren – the Allegheny Islands Wilderness Area – and then publish them, I am subject to being fined. Or I pay an enormous permit fee to photograph land that I, as an American citizen, own.

But you may argue the permit can never be enforced. In that case, why have it? Note this from the article I linked to:

“Liz Close, the Forest Service’s acting wilderness director, says the restrictions have been in place on a temporary basis for four years and are meant to preserve the untamed character of the country’s wilderness.

“Close didn’t cite any real-life examples of why the policy is needed or what problems it’s addressing. She didn’t know whether any media outlets had applied for permits in the last four years.”

The Forest Service cannot provide an example of why they need this permit fee, but gosh darn it, they need it!

And like the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s push for their user fee, it’s a solution looking for a problem. And when you have a solution looking for a problem, YOU can become the problem. The Forest Service can no more effectively patrol 193 million acres of wilderness than the Game Commission can patrol the 1.5 million they are responsible for. But they don’t need to, if they have a rule in place they can enforce it as needed. You recall that both this website and The New York Times are media? Guess which one of us has lawyers and money to fight or to pay. In a case where Big Brother can pick who to go after, they always choose the low hanging fruit. It will be websites and blogs they go after, not big corporations. In other words, me, or some kid posting his vacation photos from Mount Hood.

Fortunately it seems some people in government still care about the First Amendment. Quoting again from Oregonlive:

“With smartphones blurring the lines between reporters and camera crews, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said the agency should tread more carefully.

‘”The Forest Service needs to rethink any policy that subjects noncommercial photographs and recordings to a burdensome permitting process for something as simple as taking a picture with a cell phone,” Wyden said. “Especially where reporters and bloggers are concerned, this policy raises troubling questions about inappropriate government limits on activity clearly protected by the First Amendment.”‘

And according to ABC News, it seems the Forest Service is backing off their initial proposals. Faced with increasing criticism of a proposal that would restrict media filming in wilderness areas, the head of the U.S. Forest Service said late Thursday that the rule is not intended to apply to news-gathering activities. But the article goes on to note that they’ve not changed the language in their proposal. In other words, they are spinning rather than revising their policies.

We’ll keep an eye on the Forest Service permit, but in the meantime, here is where we stand with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission, in its public meeting on Monday and Tuesday, voted to table the proposal to charge a user fee to non-hunters who bicycle, use a snowmobile, or ride a horse on State Game Lands. The press release is here, and here is the relevant portion:

“The commissioners directed the Executive Director to work with staff to re-evaluate the proposal and bring new recommendations to the board at the working group meeting Dec. 15th at the Game Commission’s Harrisburg headquarters.

“Among other things, the commissioners said they want to make clear in the proposal that those using previously approved trails such as Rails to Trails would be exempted from needing the permit.”

Before I explain why the proposal, even reworked, is a bad idea, let’s note that when this was first brought up in June the Game Commission wanted to charge the fee to anyone who didn’t hold a hunting license. This included hikers and birdwatchers. When the public outcry became deafening the Game Commission suggested the fee on bikes, horses, and snowmobiles to cover the cost of damage from use. Now the proposal is that the fee would only apply to people who use “non-approved trails.” One gets the feeling the Game Commission wants the user fee not out of need but because they want to show the world they control the game lands.

The user fee idea in its potentially reworked form passes from overreach into ridiculousness. If the Game Commission exempts people riding on “previously approved trails”, this means they want to charge a user fee to people who ride in places they shouldn’t.  How does that discourage the sort of trail damage the fee is meant to stop?

The proposal remains bad, for the following reasons:

  • It gives non-hunters a voice in the Game Commission. When you charge a user fee you are opening the door to non-hunters having a say in running the Game Lands. Mountain bikers in particular would love to open up more areas for riding, and charging them a fee gives them a foot in the door.
  • It violates the trust between the Game Commission and the many people and groups who donated or sold below cost properties for the State Game Lands. Some hunters and the Game Commission would like you to believe every acre of the SGL was paid for by a hunter, but that claim ignores groups like the Western PA Conservancy’s donation of 41 thousand acres of land over the years. The land was donated to protect it and preserve it for the citizens of the Commonwealth, not for the GC to charge a user fee.
  • The proposal is unenforceable with current GC staffing. When a bear was wandering around central PA with a bucket stuck to its head,  the Game Commission put out a bear trap. That’s all they did. The animal was wandering around for a month, suffering, and the state entity that’s responsible for animal control and managing the bear population couldn’t locate it. 24 hours after news of the bear appeared on Facebook citizens located the bear and freed it. Now the Game Commission, who couldn’t locate a bear in a bucket, say they can track down unauthorized cyclists and equestrians over a land area twice the size of Rhode Island.

One positive note that comes out of the discussion of the user fee is just how much the non-hunter owes to the hunting community. Hunters United for Sunday Hunting suggested instead of implementing an unworkable and divisive user fee, the Game Commission post signs asking non-hunting users to “thank a hunter.” It’s an excellent suggestion, and I’ll personally take up HUSH’s idea. Thanks to Pennsylvania’s hunters and trappers for allowing me, a non-hunter, to access the State Game Lands and explore the wonders on them. I’ll use good common sense and follow the rules as I walk the land, especially when its hunting season and you are harvesting.