House OKs Lands Bill with Photo Fees, Permits — Now It's Up to Senate

March 2, 2016

The House on February 26, 2016, passed a bill (HR 2406) that included provisions that could require journalists to get permits and pay fees for photography and filming on public lands.

Now the ball is in the Senate's court. The Senate Energy Committee on November 19, 2015, approved a different version of the bill (S 556, S. Rept. 114-183) which seems to include an exemption from fees and permits for "news gathering." But whether it will pass on the floor or get reconciled with the House bill in an election year is unknown.

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) has for years urged Congress and land management agencies not to impose restrictions on filming and reporting on lands managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Most recently, SEJ joined other journalism groups in opposing photo fees under consideration by Senate Energy on July 8, 2014.

Currently, agency rules under a law enacted in 2000 require permits and fees for "commercial filming" on federal lands managed by the agencies. Under a patchwork of agency interpretations, some agencies have tried to impose those fees on working journalists, and others (notably the Forest Service) have exempted journalists.

The House bill would partly replace that structure with a fixed-fee one-year permit for film crews of five or fewer. The expedition industry, which is important in Alaska, has supported that approach.

The version reported by the Senate committee declares that fee provisions shall not apply to "news gathering." It further states: "'news gathering' includes, at a minimum, the gathering, recording, and filming of news and information related to news in any medium.'' Another provision states: "The Secretary shall not consider subject matter or content as a criterion for issuing or denying a permit under this Act.”

On November 18, 2015, SEJ and the National Press Photographers Association wrote the Senate committee objecting to language similar to what is in the House-passed bill. Text is here.

SEJ and other journalism groups have not yet taken a position on whether the Senate committee's new language is enough of an improvement.

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