Journalists have been drawn into the debate over what is proper commerce in America’s national parks.
The debate goes back to the beginning of Yellowstone National Park. Poachers were killing thousands of elk. Visitors were carting off pieces of the travertine hot springs commercial fisheries were set up on the park’s rivers to feed visitors and surrounding communities.
Moses Harris, the first military superintendent of Yellowstone said in 1889: “if under the guise of improvement selfish interests are permitted to make merchandise of its wonders and beauties, it will eventually become a by word and reproach.” At the time many people thought Harris went too far, halting hotel construction and discouraging visitors instead of encouraging them.
Most people agree we should not be selling logs, mining or drilling for oil in our national parks. But should Yellowstone be selling licenses to drug companies to collect species and genes of species that live in its hot springs and offer the chance for miracle cures? We do and it is advancing science while bringing money into the park.
These decisions are tough and the lines often gray. Now the Department of the Interior is revising a law that requires permits and fees for commercial filming and photography on federal lands. Photographers and television videographers covering breaking news, would be exempt. But on feature stories local managers would decide when to require permits and impose fees.
This is where it gets sticky. Last fall, a public affairs employee at Yellowstone National Park told a reporter to pay $200 and prove she had at least $1 million of liability insurance before she could interview a wolf biologist in the park according to Plenty Magazine.
I have covered all kinds of stories in national parks from fires, to grizzly bears and more mundane fare like dedication of historical sites. Giving the power to managers to decide who can cover what news in their national park would be like telling a county commissioner he can decide which reporters get to cover his meetings.
Charge Warner Brothers or Revolution Studios all you can get for movie permits. Photographers who are clearly not journalists also should pay. But if there is any question about a person’s journalistic credentials the burden should be on the parks to show they are not engaged in journalism.