In a new effort to protect national parks and wilderness areas from commercial photography, the feds have started going after amateur filmmakers with big social media followings.
Last fall, an Instagrammer named Casey Nocket made news when she posted photos of permanent acrylic portraits that she’d painted on rock faces in national parks across the country. Predictably, people were pretty upset both by her deeds and the callousness she appeared to have about her vandalism, writing in a comment under one of her photos, “I know, I’m a bad person.”
Nocket, who’s now under investigation by the National Park Service, represents an extreme example of a problem that’s been cropping up a lot lately: people getting in trouble with their cameras on public lands. Last September, there was the fuss over hikers at Lake Tahoe’s Taylor Creek taking selfies with black bears preying on spawning trout. The bears are so focused on the food that they often let hikers get within a few feet of them, which habituates the bears to humans and makes attacks more likely. That same month, in New Jersey, a Rutgers student was mauled to death by a black bear shortly after photographing it at close range.
It’s hard to draw a precise circle around any one type of behavior, but too many camera-wielding people have been getting crossed up with the law for it to be just a coincidence that the Forest Service chose last September to issue stricter guidelines for commercial photo permits. Generally, the incidents fall into one of two categories.
The first group, like Nocket, includes people who get into trouble because their pictures document them doing illegal stuff on public land. Nocket was willfully malicious, but when a Yosemite concession employee and popular Instagrammer named Trevor Lee pled guilty last fall in federal court, it was because he climbed trees and made campfires—in places where those activities were banned—all in hopes of taking a good picture. (Several of these photos were part of an online photo gallery that Outside ran on its website over the summer.)
The second reason photographers, and especially videographers, find themselves on the wrong end of a subpoena is for shooting commercially on public land without filing for a filming permit. This second group of prosecutions occurs less frequently. I couldn’t find hard numbers for film-permit-related prosecutions, but anecdotally, what seems to be happening is that the Forest Service and Park Service prosecute for permit violations more often when they’re unhappy about something else—like vandalism or resource degradation.
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