The National Park Service is charged by federal statute to promote and regulate the use of national parks.
It makes sense, then, that the Park Service regulate uses that could potentially damage or alter park resources.
It does not make sense for the Park Service to establish policies that interfere with legitimate news-gathering activities, including the writing and production of feature stories on the parks or the Park Service.
Under existing policy, the coverage of breaking news events is exempt from filming and photography policies. But the policy — and its application — gets a little murky when it comes to enterprise reporting. Take the recent experience of a freelance radio reporter preparing a report for public radio who was told she had to obtain a permit and pay $200 to interview a wildlife biologist at a national park.
Public affairs officials backed off when the reporter raised a challenge. Yet, this is one example in many that has chilled news-gathering activities. These matters should be more clearly spelled out in rulemaking so as not to deter news-gathering activities. Moreover, it is somewhat disturbing that the Park Service's permit process allows park employees to consider whether the plans of a journalist would benefit the Park Service from increased public awareness.
What if a report is critical of a particular park or practices at a park? What if a report aims to expose wrongdoing or systemic problems that somehow interfere with the Park Service's charge to preserve park resources for future generations?
Should the Park Service be in a position in which it can act as gatekeeper regarding news and feature coverage? We think not.
As the Department of Interior finalizes regulations that could require permits and fees for taking pictures, filming or making audio recordings in national parks (aside from personal use), the agency would do well to adopt rules that ensure free flow of information on the public lands and ensure that the working press is not saddled with fees and permitting processes that interfere with its ability to cover this governmental agency.