May 19, 2010
Gov. Otter takes on feds over wilderness filming
By JOHN MILLER - Associated Press Writer

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter on Wednesday chastised the U.S. Forest Service for forbidding the state's educational broadcasting network from sending a cameraman into a central Idaho wilderness area.

Idaho Public Television, licensed by the federal government as a noncommercial TV station, wanted to film students doing conservation work in the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area for its "Outdoor Idaho" show, which has filmed in wilderness areas in the past.

But Frank Guzman, the Salmon-Challis National Forest supervisor, told the station this month that "this sort of filming is commercial, and thus not allowed in the wilderness."

Otter urged Guzman to reconsider what he termed an "ill-advised decision."

"The claim that IPTV is a commercial entity is patently absurd and defies common sense," Otter wrote Guzman. "IPTV is owned by the state of Idaho and is an agency of the State Board of Education. IPTV is a noncommercial entity."

Confronting federal agencies that Otter believes have overstepped their authority is familiar ground for Idaho's Republican governor.

Under his administration, the Department of Fish and Game in 2009 landed helicopters in the Frank Church wilderness to dart wolves, without Forest Service permission. And this year, Otter helped lead states suing the federal government over health care reform.

The federal 1964 Wilderness Act forbids most motorized and mechanized transportation inside wilderness preserves, aiming to keep them pristine as possible.

According to Forest Service rules, however, camera crews aren't excluded during breaking news events, in order to protect 1st Amendment free-speech rights. But National Forest managers are instructed not to issue authorization for commercial filming "unless clearly necessary for realizing wilderness purposes," according to Forest Service guidelines.

Idaho Public Television wanted to send a lone cameraman down a wilderness trail for several hours on Monday to film 15 participants in a Student Conservation Association program meant to train future land managers.

It had to scuttle the shoot due to Guzman's decision.

"If Ansel Adams were alive today and wanted to bring his camera into the Frank Church wilderness, would the Forest Service let him?" asked Peter Morrill, Idaho Public Television general manager.

Bruce Reichert, the "Outdoor Idaho" host, disputed Guzman's depiction of his show as "commercial."

The station does offer "Outdoor Idaho" videos for sale but only to help recoup production costs, he said.

Guzman's ban bodes ill for future productions aiming to showcase Idaho's rugged wilderness areas, including a planned documentary on the 517,000-acre Owhyee Canyon wilderness in southwestern Idaho created by Congress in 2009, Reichert said.

"We're feeling a little upset and concerned that maybe the stories that we used to just take for granted, that we would be able to do with Forest Service personnel helping us out, are not going to be available to us," he said.

Erin O'Connor, a regional Forest Service spokeswoman in Ogden, Utah, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

But in his letter to Idaho Public Television, Guzman contends he didn't have a choice.

"Our experts in Special Uses and Wilderness Management in the Regional Office all agree that this sort of filming is commercial, and thus not allowed in the wilderness," Guzman wrote. "There really seems to be no gray area on this topic."

Still, interpretation of access questions appears to differ depending on which National Forest manager is making the call and from state to state. For instance, the Oregon Public Broadcasting System's "Oregon Field Guide" program sent a camera crew in 2009 on a three-day trip into the Eagle Cap Wilderness of northeastern Oregon to document an ancient tree.

Steve Amen, who hosts "Oregon Field Guide," said he encountered questions years ago from some forest managers over access, but the matter was resolved quickly.

"The people in the main offices love what we're doing. They were surprised that we were getting resistance," Amen said. "They want us on their land."