What is happening to our Public Lands?

Fifth Wheel Trailer RV near Vermillion Cliffs National Monument Arizona

Will photos taken on public lands like this beautiful spot on the Utah/Arizona border require an expensive permit in the future?

October 2014 – There have been some interesting and disturbing developments on America’s public lands lately. For the last month, photographers have been up in arms over a proposal put forth by the US Forest Service to charge big fees for permits to take pics on public land.

This news has gone viral since the USFS first announced the proposal in early September, and there have been oodles of irate blog posts and tweets from some of the biggest online news outlets.

Ironically, if you followed the links all the way to the USFS source document (which many blogs neglected to include), and if you read the actual proposal that the Forest Service presented, it is something that most people, and certainly most photographers, would probably support wholeheartedly.

The other two developments, however, are quietly happening at the Grand Canyon, and the news has not only NOT gone viral but has come and gone as an apparent non-issue that few seem to care about. Yet these upcoming commercial developments will change the Grand Canyon’s precious magic forever, and they are much more foreboding and sad than any photo permit could ever be.


Photography on our Public Lands

Photography buffs have gone ballistic because the US Forest Service is proposing that under certain circumstances folks with cameras will need to get a $1,500 permit to shoot on public lands or face a possible $1,000 fine. Lordy me, that sounds truly egregious!

I haven’t found where the US Forest Service is listing those fees, however the critical words to understanding this proposal are “under certain circumstances.” As I read it, the circumstances are the following: if you are filming a commercial shoot on designated Wilderness Areas in the National Forest, then you must obtain a permit. Permits have already been required for still photographers shooting commercially on designated Wilderness Areas for the past four years, but that old rule is expiring.  This new proposal is simply an update that will include film photography as well as still photography.

Where public land lovers should find this new proposal encouraging is that the permit will not even be issued unless the purpose of the commercial film is the promotion of the wilderness area itself.

What the US Forest Service is trying to do is to keep Chevy from making Silverado truck commercials in the wilderness without getting a permit. Thank goodness! Only Dodge should be allowed to make commercials there!! (Just kidding, but we do love our truck).


What is Public Land and What is a Wilderness Area?

Until we started living on America’s public lands in our RV so much of the time, we did not know what public land was, and we did not realize that our public lands are managed by many different agencies. The three major ones are:

• The US Forest Service, which is an agency in the Department of Agriculture
• The Bureau of Land Management, which is an agency in the Department of the Interior
• The National Park Service, which is a bureau in the Department of the Interior

These three agencies fall under different branches of the federal government, they have very different missions, and they operate in completely different ways. All of them allow some degree of recreation on their lands, but with different rules and regulations. If I were to characterize our experience with each agency, their mottos, public messages and recreational management philosophies might be described like this:

US Forest Service: Come fish and hunt and camp and have fun on our land, but please don’t trash the place.
National Park Service: You can come and look our treasures, but DON’T TOUCH.
Bureau of Land Management: We have all the best stuff, but we won’t tell you where it is. You have to find it for yourself, which is a great adventure, and a lot of it is really hard to get to!

The US Forest Service opens certain areas within their land to the public for outdoor fun, and they provide amenities like boat ramps, vault toilets, hiking and biking trails and campgrounds. They have set aside other areas within their lands to be officially designated Wilderness Areas that are completely undeveloped. So there are no roads, no hiking trails, no fish cleaning stations, no signs, no nothing. Just Nature in all its glory.  Click here for a list of USFS WIlderness Areas.  The Bureau of Land Management has created similar Wilderness Areas within its lands.

You’re not allowed to do much of anything in the officially designated Wilderness Areas other than get in touch with your own animal spirit out in the wild. You can hike, you can ride a horse, and you can camp in a tent. The list of things you can’t do is very long.  These are places where the managers want you to “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.” The hope is that these areas will remain pristine and that people will play on them in small numbers with some degree of sensitivity to the vulnerability of the land around them.

So, it makes sense that commercial photographers who enter these lands to make photos and films for profit be carefully regulated. Would we really want a movie of World War III staged in a Wilderness Area? Hollywood has been notorious for leaving places trashed and permanently altered in their wake after they abandon a film set, and old movie sets can be found on public lands all over the west.

In reality, requiring an expensive permit of a commercial filmmaker is nothing compared to requiring them to make the purpose of their work be the promotion of the wilderness area itself. That alone will keep many commercial photographers from bothering with making films in designated Wilderness Areas.

Now, perhaps I’m reading the document wrong. I’m not a lawyer or expert document or contract reader. So have a look at it for yourself, and see what you get from it. The USFS proposal can be read here.


Changes at the Grand Canyon

The article that really baffled and enraged me, however, was not the one about permits for filmmakers. It was the New York Times article entitled Cathedral Under Siege by Kevin Fedarko, a nature lover, part-time Grand Canyon river rafting guide and acclaimed author of The Emerald Mile, a book about river rafting in the Grand Canyon.

Another article about the upcoming changes at Grand Canyon was written on the National Geographic blog and can be read here: Grand Canyon on the Precipice.

It is really worthwhile to read these two articles.

They describe two very different and absolutely mind boggling threats to the Grand Canyon that are currently underway, one at each of the two entrances to the South Rim (the more popular and ten times more heavily visited of the two rims of the Grand Canyon.

Just two miles from the south entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, a group headed by Italians have managed to buy up many acres of US Forest Service Land and incorporate it into a town. Personally, I have no idea how that works, but they’ve done it.

Now that they have an incorporated town, they have political and legal clout. And what they want to do with this clout is to build 2,200 homes, several high end hotels, restaurants, fancy shops, a dude ranch and other big profit enterprises that will fill three million square feet of commercial space just outside the park. Because they have been very patient over a period of several decades and have acquired the right configuration of land combined with the right configuration of legal power, they will be very hard to stop.

I love our immigrant nation and I really want to go to Italy someday to see all the beauty that is there, but I find it adds insult to injury to see that a group of non-Americans have positioned themselves to impact one of our national treasures forever. Once the first bulldozer razes that land, it will never be the same again.

Just outside the East Entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, another group of property developers is eyeing up the potential for turning the outside edge of this UNESCO World Heritage Site into a money maker to line a few pockets as well. This group has equal political and legal clout but has acquired it in a much different way.

At the east end of Grand Canyon National Park lies the Navajo Nation, a huge tract of land that makes up a sizable percentage of the state of Arizona and the neighboring states. It goes on for miles and miles and is home to 300,000 people who can trace at least a small portion of their lineage to the indigenous people that lived here before the Europeans showed up.

The more we travel the west in our RV, the more we have come to realize that the history of the west is actually the history of the exploitation of natural resources, from furs to trees to precious metals and minerals. Once gold was discovered out west, all the treaties and agreements that had been painstakingly negotiated and signed by the American government and the Indian leaders of the time were thrown to the winds by the Americans, and the Indians were doomed.

Today, as the American population explodes exponentially, the descendants of the betrayed Indian tribes are sitting on massive and increasingly valuable land, and they are using incredible business savvy to make the most of it. So, why not erect a 3,200 foot long tramway that descends from the rim of the Grand Canyon down into its glorious depths on their land? This project, the Grand Canyon Escalade, will provide much needed income and jobs to the Navajo Nation (although the bulk of the profits appear to be aimed for the Scottsdale, Arizona developer) in an area where residents in nearby homes don’t have running water.

Ironically, where Americans can be extremely rapacious when it comes to commercial property development, these two current threats to the Grand Canyon are coming from a group of savvy Italian investors and a group of Navajo descendants whose forefathers once roamed the land freely and who have a business plan that could help their community immensely.

With great business acumen, each of these groups has put themselves into a legal position that will be very hard to stop.

We entrust our government to protect our public lands, and we love to get enraged in a very dramatic way when we think they are doing a bad job. However, public land comes in many shapes and sizes. Designated Wilderness Areas are often virtually impenetrable, which makes photography there difficult at best, no matter what the purpose of the imagery is or how large a fee is charged. And public land has boundaries, outside of which it is in private hands that can do with it what they will. And apparently some of it can be purchased and incorporated into towns, effectively converting it from public land to private land.

Forcing commercial filmmakers to purchase permits and modify their film’s message and subject matter to promote the wilderness when they shoot in designated Wilderness Areas doesn’t bother me. Fancy hotels and restaurants, a gondola ride, a dude ranch and 2,200 homes just outside Grand Canyon National Park does.


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