Public Land Photo-Fee Provisions Buried in Pending Energy Legislation

May 25, 2016

Few noticed when the Senate April 20, 2016, passed an energy bill (S 2012) that had tucked into it language governing fees and permits for filming in parks, forests and other federal lands. Journalists have cared about these provisions, because some federal agencies have asked news gatherers to get permits before they can report on events on federal lands.

The Senate-passed bill contains an explicit exemption from permits and fees for newsgathering, something the Society of Environmental Journalists has worked toward for almost a decade. But a House energy bill, now going to conference to be reconciled with the Senate bill, contains no newsgathering exemption. But that's not the end of the story.

A new version of the the House energy bill (HR 8), intended to be the vehicle for a conference, was filed May 20, 2016. It included many provisions of the so-called "Sportsmen's Act" that had previously included different filming fees and permits language (and no newsgathering exemption). But the new version of the House conference vehicle, according to a WatchDog text analysis, contains no language on filming fees and permits at all. That would leave conferees with a choice between the Senate filming language or nothing at all — and it may signal House acceptance of the Senate filming formula. And it looks like House and Senate are going to hold a formal conference. The House Rules Committee took action to set up the conference May 24.

That's the good news. The bad news is that prospects for final enactment of the energy-sportsmen's package seem very dim. The differences between the House and Senate packages — not just their scope but their policy choices — are vast. While Senate leaders tried to craft a "bipartisan" package, most pretense of bipartisanship has largely broken down in a House package loaded with policy riders. Opposition to the sportsmen's provisions, much less the energy provisions, is intense from environmental groups. And the election is coming.

The Senate-passed energy bill (S 2012) requires federal land management agencies — the National Parks, National Forests, etc. — to set up permit-and-fee rules for "commercial filming" such as large Hollywood productions that could disturb the resource or deprive the public of use. But it explicitly states that "News gathering shall not be considered a commercial activity." It goes on: "news gathering' includes, at a minimum, the gathering, recording, and filming of news and information related to news in any medium."

Stay tuned.

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