Public Land: Government Hijacks Un-owned Property

Of course, the government claims that public land is owned because the government claims to own the land in trust for the “public.” But holding the land for “everyone” turns out to be the same as owning it for one’s own selfish interests.

forest service

In order to claim ownership of land, people normally have to do something with it. This is commonly called “homesteading.” Governments have never recognized this limitation. When the Spanish explorer who reached the Pacific Ocean claimed the sea and all lands touching it for the Spanish government, this was a rather severe instance of a common problem. If one wishes to own “wild land” one has to at least throw a fence around it though that would be debatable.

But if that happened, each wilderness owner would decide if he would allow visitors to come onto his or her property with a camera. If the person wanted to take pictures to sell, then it would be up to the owner to decide if he wanted to charge an extra fee. But if he tried to charge that fee, he would have to keep his price competitive with those of other wilderness owners. If he charged too much, he would lose all his customers. Those wilderness owners who had especially popular property could get away with charging more than others.

But the Federal government didn’t acquire wilderness through homesteading and the market. No, it gave itself a virtual monopoly and presumed to do this in the name of the public—an obvious ruse. If it did not give itself all wilderness in the U.S. it certainly gave itself the best wilderness.

This alleged trust was supposed to benefit the public, but only a small fraction of the public who might be interested in the beauty of that wilderness can afford the time and money to travel to it (especially at the right time of year, etc). Many people only benefit from this land through photography.

Up until now, those who wanted to take pictures of the wilderness on allegedly “public” land could do so. They could then share these pictures for free or for a paying client. Since traveling to wilderness areas is not free, it made sense that compensation would help motivate people to take such pictures. On the other hand, since anyone could freely take such pictures, photographers had an upper limit on what the price they could ask for their pictures. If they refused to take a low enough offer then someone else would come along and sell their pictures for the lower price.

Now, as Snopes confirms, “The U.S. Forest Service is proposing new rules that would require permits for commercial filming and photography in federally designated wilderness areas.” In fact, it seems the rules were supposed to apply to the news media as much as anyone else. Once confronted by the First Amendment, an AP story makes it clear that the Forest Service backtracked:

Faced with increasing criticism of a proposal that would restrict media filming in wilderness areas, the head of the U.S. Forest Service said late Thursday that the rule is not intended to apply to news-gathering activities.

The rule would apply to commercial filming, like a movie production, but reporters and news organizations would not need to get a permit to shoot video or photographs in the nation’s wilderness areas, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a phone interview Thursday.

“The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment,” he said, adding: “It does not infringe in any way on First Amendment rights. It does not apply to news-gathering activities, and that includes any part of news.”

Forest Service officials had said earlier in the week that news organizations, except in breaking news situations, would be required to obtain a permit and follow a number of criteria if they wanted to film in designated wilderness areas.

But this is going from bad to worse. Having been confronted with a clear First Amendment violation, the Forest Service responds by telling us that the First Amendment only applies to “news-gathering activities.” This is like the bait-and-switch “media shield law” that politicians are promoting to codify a designation for official journalism and stomp down on bloggers and others who don’t qualify. They pose as honoring the First Amendment when they are actually weakening it.

Nothing “exploits” wilderness less than mere photography. They should not be charged prices for merely taking footage.

A better move would be to abolish “public” land altogether. Let people own it and take care of it within the context of a private-property-based economic system.