Under rules being finalized in November, a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in any of the nation's 100 million acres of wilderness would first need special approval to shoot photos or videos even on an iPhone.
Permits cost up to $1,500, says Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers, and reporters who don't get a permit could face fines up to $1,000.
First Amendment advocates say the rules ignore press freedoms and are so vague they'd allow the Forest Service to grant permits only to favored reporters shooting videos for positive stories.
"It's pretty clearly unconstitutional," said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Alexandria, Va. "They would have to show an important need to justify these limits, and they just can't."
Liz Close, the Forest Service's acting wilderness director, says the restrictions have been in place on a temporary basis for four years and are meant to preserve the untamed character of the country's wilderness.
Close didn't cite any real-life examples of why the policy is needed or what problems it's addressing. She didn't know whether any media outlets had applied for permits in the last four years.
She said the agency was implementing the Wilderness Act of 1964, which aims to protect wilderness areas from being exploited for commercial gain.
"It's not a problem, it's a responsibility," she said. "We have to follow the statutory requirements."