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Another View: Forest Service comes to its senses

Some officials from the U.S. Forest Service seem to believe that photographs in a newspaper, or video segments on a TV program, could sully the pristine nature of America's wilderness areas.

Perplexed?

We are too.

Or, rather, we were perplexed until the Forest Service's chief, Tom Tidwell, issued a belated but welcome press release Thursday that makes a lot more sense than some of his underlings' recent statements.

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but so far as we can tell a photograph doesn't make much of a scar on places such as Northeastern Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness, the biggest chunk of ground in Oregon to receive Congress' official seal of wildness.

The issue comes down to what Congress was getting at when it included language in the 1964 Wilderness Act regarding the exploitation of wild areas for commercial gain.

We're pretty confident that lawmakers were worrying about the sorts of exploitation wilderness visitors would actually notice and that would, as the saying goes, leave a mark — cutting down trees or digging open pit mines or building Swiss-style ski resorts, for instance.

But the Forest Service, until Tidwell's clarifying press release, was also suggesting that the news media, by reporting stories from wilderness areas, can also exploit wilderness areas. To that end the agency, for the past four years, has had a little-known policy that in theory requires reporters to apply for a permit to take photos or videos in a wilderness area. Reporters who ignore the requirement could be fined as much as $1,000.

Liz Close, the Forest Service's acting wilderness director, said she's not aware that any journalists have applied for such a permit, or have been fined.

But her published comments increase rather than ease our distaste for the concept behind this policy.

She said, for instance, that the Forest Service would issue permits for media reporting "that was in support of wilderness characteristics."

In other words, only government-approved propaganda is allowed, no matter that wilderness areas are public property.

This doesn't flout the First Amendment; it eviscerates it.

Newspaper stories featuring Close's comments prompted a flurry of complaints not only from media outlets but also from politicians, including Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

The widespread outcry over what seemed to be the Forest Service's ignorance of free speech principles led to Tidwell's press release.

He said the agency's permitting policy for wilderness areas "pertains to commercial photography and filming only" — he cited as an example the 2013 Johnny Depp film "The Lone Ranger," which includes scenes filmed on the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico.

"If you're there to gather news or take recreational photographs no permit would be required," Tidwell said. "We take your First Amendment rights very seriously."

We'll take Tidwell at his word.

Ultimately, the notion that the Forest Service could restrict journalists working on public land is so farfetched that we didn't consider it a serious threat to press freedom.

It's a pity, though, that the agency's top official had to set straight what should have been obvious.