Thursday, September 25, 2014

Forest Service Photo Permit Brouhaha

Photo: CJ

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. And yes, this includes Senator’s Twitter feeds. This week, there was a media feeding frenzy after the Oregonian broke a story alleging that the Forest Service wants to charge you $1500 to take a photo of the Wilderness - and ignore the right to free speech while they’re at it. Outside Magazine, Adventure Journal and other news outlets ran with the article, and a couple of elected officials in Oregon even piled on, slamming the Forest Service.

Thing is, they don't have it quite right.

If you actually read the rule the Forest Service plans to institute, it will not affect your ability to Instagram from the Wilderness. The heart of the matter is the permits the agency requires for filming that has any commercial component – meaning it is used as an ad or sold at some point. With the proposed new rule, they are adding new criteria to get a permit for such use in designated Wilderness. Importantly, these permits only apply to things “other than noncommercial still photography.” So you can keep snapping photos, and so can the press. Not only is still photography exempt, these rules for commercial filming permits have been in place for a long time, and the Wilderness specific rules have actually been in effect for the last 4 years. All without much fuss.

Now, could the Forest Service have done a better job explaining all this and avoiding the blowback? Yes. Are there ways the existing and new permitting rules could be improved? Sure. And is it worth considering the heavy burden the permits may place on near-amateur filmmakers, whose work can help draw more people into the outdoors? Absolutely.

But before any news outlet jumps to conclusions and waves the First Amendment flag – or reposts others that have done just that – they should crack open the Federal Register and take a closer look. The Forest Service has since responded, saying they have no intention of limiting free speech.

Friday, February 21, 2014

This Week in Outdoor Policy - February 21st

Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Ski Areas Not Responsible for Avalanches?
Here’s a worrying idea. A Colorado court recently found that ski areas are not responsible for inbounds avalanches. The ruling came in the case of a skier killed in a slide at Winter Park back in 2012. The court argued that avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing inbounds, because they result from changes in snow, weather and terrain, all of which ski areas are already not responsible for. Though that definition of an avalanche is, strictly speaking, true, it seems like a stretch. It is a bit like arguing that Disneyland isn’t responsible for the weather, so it’s not their fault when a roller coaster rusts and breaks. Most skiers assume it is the resort’s job to prevent avalanches, just like it is an amusement park’s job to maintain rides. Why else would resorts close and bomb slopes? In fact, some laws in other states clearly say that avalanches are not an assumed risk on open slopes. With 16 people killed in avalanches in the US so far this season, ski areas are a welcome safe haven. Though there are exceptions, where skiers wear avalanche beacons at resorts, if this ruling stands, it could mean big changes for inbounds skiing in Colorado.

New Conservation in the West Poll ReleasedEvery year, Colorado College polls Western voters for their views on conservation. This year’s just released poll is not altogether surprising – unless you are a certain breed of Western politician, in which case you find yourself at odds with huge swaths of voters. The bipartisan survey in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Montana found that nearly 85% of voters believe closing national parks and forests hurts the economy, and that public lands should receive adequate funding. A similarly overwhelming majority, 72%, would be less likely to vote for someone that wants to sell off public lands. The main takeaway, revealed yet again? Public lands matter, no matter your political leaning. A full 95% of respondents visited public land in the last year, and most care deeply about them. Those elected officials that played a part in closing National Parks during the government shutdown, that seek to defund land management agencies at every turn, and that push for state ownership of public lands – take note.

Friday, February 14, 2014

This Week in Outdoor Policy - February 14th

Fat BIkeTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Fat Biking is Not a Crime…or is it?
If you haven’t noticed, the next big thing is here – fat bikes. Even though they are not exactly new, the availability and popularity of these mountain bikes with 4-inch wide tires has exploded across the West and Mid-West, with sales doubling every year. These bikes can be perfect for touring or riding in sand, but the main advantage - and as it turns out, source of conflict - is riding on snow. Now, the growing army of snow bikers has found itself crosswise with cross-country skiers. The primary reason is that fat bikes can leave ruts on groomed trails, upsetting skiers. As seems to be a rule, every new form of recreation somehow comes into conflict with existing forms, and it takes a while to adjust. Efforts to build awareness, like the recent Global Fat Bike Summit, will go a long way towards finding a happy coexistence between skiers and snow bikers – and a way to share techniques for avoiding conflict altogether, by grooming swoopy, singletrack, snow bike specific trails. While bearded bikers and spandex-clad skiers work things out, land management agencies need to catch up. They certainly need to clear up rules likes those that led to two well-meaning snow bikers getting fat tickets, despite the total absence of warning signs, for riding on snowmobile trails. Fat bikes have arrived, and hopefully they can be welcomed for what they are: another great way for more people to get outside.

Paddling Access Bill Draws Controversy
Last week, the US House of Representatives passed the River Paddling Protection Act. This bill, in a revised form, would set in potion the process of determining if paddling could be allowed on more rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The next step from here, of course, is a bill in the Senate. But this week American Whitewater decided to stop supporting the legislative route. Though they did not initiate the legislation in the first place and actually testified in favor of crucial changes along the way, they have been supporting the efforts of Representatives Lummis and Bishop. This bill has sparked controversy and opposition from some, including the Department of the Interior. With luck, the conversation can continue even if the legislative route dries up, and the Park Service may yet be spurred to take a hard look at their paddling ban. Access for recreation is always a privilege rather than a right, but paddlers do have an entirely reasonable expectation to be given fair consideration. The management of treasured places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton often leads to heated debate. It bears remembering that the passion of those on both sides comes from deep-seated reverence for these places and for the ways we choose to enjoy them.

Friday, January 31, 2014

This Week in Outdoor Policy - January 31st



Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Two Good Bills Pass Committee

On Tuesday, the House Natural Resources Committee gave two river-related bills the nod, passing them on to the full House. First up, the River Paddling Protection Act, which will set in motion the process of lifting the ban on paddling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. When this bill first came out, there was concern about legislating what should be a management decision – essentially going over the heads of Park managers. But paddling leaders felt that the Park Service had forced their hand, by refusing to even consider paddling for so long. Crucially, the bill that just progressed is a new version, with changes to address these concerns. Now, the Park Service will have three years to lift the 60-year-old ban, “as determined by the director of the NPS.” Though the Department of the Interior still opposes the measure, it should strike a balance between leading the Park Service to change and maintaining their discretion to manage the environmental and social impacts of boating, by keeping armies of inner tubers away and even closing sections of rivers during certain times. Next up to pass committee, Montana Representative Steve Daines’ North Fork Watershed Protection Act. This bill would permanently protect 400,000 acres next to Glacier National Park from mining and other development. It enjoys bipartisan support, and a corresponding bill before the Senate – which, though no guarantee, gives this commendable conservation effort a fighting chance of actually becoming law. As surprising as it may be, Congress now has two good bills before them, protecting both places and experiences outside. The real surprise will be when they pass. 

Two Big Speeches on the Outdoors
This week, there were two big speeches – okay, one really big and one kinda big – that touched on outdoor policy. First, the biggie. On Tuesday, President Obama gave his State of the Union address, wherein he uttered the fateful words, “I’ll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.” If your reaction to this is more stand-and-clap than sit-and-scowl, you know this is good news for the outdoors. The President is talking, of course, about National Monuments, the best way for him to protect places given a Congress that hasn’t passed squat. The woman largely in charge of where and how many National Monuments will go down, Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, also gave a speech, this one at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. Ms. Jewell, former head of REI, spoke of coming home to the outdoor industry, where the uniform is plaid instead of pinstripe. She’s now been in the deep end in Washington, DC for 9 months, where she’s had to deal with both sequestration and the government shutdown. The main point of her speech though was a sales pitch for “CCC 2.0” her vision for the next generation of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Harkening back to the old days, where (with government dollars) the CCC quickly build much of the outdoor infrastructure we enjoy to this day, she is looking for $20 million from the private sector to make 100,000 youth conservation corps jobs possible. So far, she’s raised $1 million – anyone have $19 million more to spare?

Friday, January 3, 2014

This Week in Outdoor Policy - January 3rd

WolvesTom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.


Hunter Hired to Eliminate Wolf Packs
Wolves dominated the outdoor policy news over the holidays. This is hardly surprising, considering the topic of wolves is rarely absent from any contentious Western public lands discussion – as a former Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service said, wolves are one of only two issues that bring grown men to tears. The recent uptick in the news started with word that Idaho Fish and Game had hired a professional hunter to eliminate two wolf packs in the Frank Church Wilderness around the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Now, a bit background. Wolves were protected as endangered, but recovered sufficiently to be de-listed in 2011. So now they are considered a game animal in Idaho (as well as Montana and Wyoming) and can be hunted and trapped. Fish and Game manages wildlife on public lands, so the goal of the hired hunt is to increase the number of elk and improve the hunting. But here’s what’s worrying. The whole reason they went to the trouble of hiring a hunter is the difficulty of getting into the Wilderness area. So who, exactly, are they improving the elk hunting for? It is hard to imagine a better place to let wolves and elk figure things out for themselves.

Coyote and Wolf Hunting Derby Goes Ahead
The debate kicked up a notch in the run up to a coyote and wolf hunting competition outside of Salmon, ID last weekend.  A pro-hunting group organized the event, charging entry fees and offering cash prizes for the most, and the biggest coyotes and wolves killed. A handful of environmental organizations sued to stop it, but a Federal judge gave it the go ahead on Friday. This was the first competitive wolf hunt since the species was listed as Endangered in the 70s. (Coyotes, on the other hand, are considered pests and can be shot on sight, competitively or otherwise.) Despite the relative novelty of the event, the suit was not about the hunting itself – the argument was over the need for a special use permit, just like that for a mountain bike race or other competition on public lands. The judge ruled no permit was necessary, in part because the organizers changed the entry fee to a donation and awarded the prizes on private land. Also they used Forest Service land instead of BLM land, where managers had determined a permit was required. In the end, the 250 participants killed 23 coyotes – and no wolves. Ultimately, the de-listed wolf debate will include more and more contentious issues like this derby. Here’s hoping both sides can commit to factual, good-faith arguments that help us maintain an environmentally and socially sustainable number of wolves.