It is a poorly understood aspect of Wilderness management that any commercial filming requires a permit, and that these permits are almost never granted. Therefore films like this one, and perhaps this one, however modest they may be in scope and limited in commercial ambition, are almost always illegally made. It’s a particular conflict between a 50 year old law and the new media regime, and the legal and ethical dimensions are still very much evolving. What means commercial, these days? Specific sponsorship and pay-per-view? Youtube revenue? Free gear? Film tour notoriety? And beyond the definition of commercial, is this restriction reasonable, and desirable?
For Montana Wild there was little ambiguity. Back in 2013 the Missoula-based film company was still getting on their feet, and if I recall the logos correctly had arranged a deal with a few companies to provide support for a film about fly fishing the South Fork of the Flathead, which is of course almost entirely within the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I even posted about the trailer, which was well done, and didn’t think all that much the next summer when the video was made private, and the film itself never came to light. I assumed they’d been appraised of the commercial permitting restriction, and had to scuttle the project.
Turns out there was quite a bit more to it, enough that a warrant was granted, computers were seized, and almost 6000 dollars in fines were paid. Some of that had to do with the aforementioned filming issue, but reading between the lines it seems that what drove the State of Montana to put “hundreds of hours into the investigation” were the clear violations of fishing regulations depicted on film and photos, both previously publicized and private. It was clear to me in that clip that they were targeting Bull Trout, a native species very much under threat in most of the rest of their range, in the White River and Youngs Creek, both of which are closed to such fishing. The confiscated computers also reportedly contained evidence of landing a Bull Trout, photographing it, and then releasing it still hooked to obtain more footage.
I thought it poor form to excoriate Montana Wild in public until that last bit*, and the realization which shortly followed that I had repeatedly watched at least some of these violations, in most cases not thinking that the actions were illegal, and in all cases without considering reporting them to the relevant authorities. Indeed, though I watched the Wild Confluence packrafting film a month ago, it didn’t occur to me until now that the explicit sponsorship of the film almost certainly makes it illegally filmed, assuming as I think one can that they did not secure and purchase a permit.
[Add: M-W has since posted a response to the FWP press release.]
This debate brings up, in a roundabout way, the Jurek-Baxter saga from this past summer. Reknowned ultrarunner Scott Jurek finished his speed hike of the AT in Baxter State Park, where he was met by his support crew and others, and the group was collectively charged with drinking alcohol, littering, having too large a group, and filming without a permit. If my memory is correct, Jurek ended up with a plea deal and minimal fine. The large impact of the controversy was almost exclusively confined to the question of what commercially-related actions are and are not appropriate in wilderness, and what powers management agencies should have to regulate them. As the parks Facebook page rather publicly and ungracefully stated at the time; “Let’s be clear and concise, Scott Jurek’s physical abilities were recognized by corporations engaged in running and outdoor related products…These “corporate events” have no place in the Park and are incongruous with the Park’s mission of resource protection, the appreciation of nature and the respect of the experience of others in the Park.” (Substantial details left out by me for the sake of brevity, full post available in the above link.) Baxter has a mission written into Maine state law which is quite similar to that enshrined in the Wilderness Act, so I think the debates generalize well.
Though I disagreed and disagree with the tactlessness of Baxter State Park’s Facebooking, I agreed and still agree with the content of the message. Wilderness (and wilderness, too) are no place for commercial activity. With large film crews increasingly a thing of the past, the potential impact is not so much in the filming, but in the publicity. The information economy cannot be stopped, but it can be slowed. The world cannot be made unflat, but it can have some coulees eroded back into it, which will prevent foreknowledge from being a universal thing when going into the wild. Making a distinction between what is too much and what is not will always be deeply problematic, but that between commercial and non (however fuzzy the line) seems like as good a place as any to begin.
Land of No Use, linked to in the first paragraph, stated explicitly that the film was non-profit, and non-commercial. As a project shot almost exclusively in Wilderness areas, they had little choice, and the finished product is a good demonstration of balancing inspiration and ambiguity. Winter is always going to be less accessible than summer, after all. What about Listen to the River, which on its face is only commercial insofar as it contains logo and product placement for Granite Gear and Kokopelli Packrafts? But marketing these days is an insidious creature, and the “positive brand association…authentic adventure culture…[and] intimate exposure with core consumers”the company is selling will be dependent upon access to the right locales (roadside time lapses won’t cut it with more discerning brands and customers). For this reason I think it is absolutely relevant to discuss this issue, and will for the foreseeable future it seems be tormented with when to turn fun online videos in to the local Forest Service and FWP offices.
* Catch and release fishing is ethically questionable enough, and posing fish for photos is very close to unacceptable in just about all circumstances when dealing with a fragile population of native, cold water fish. And yes, I’ve done both. But illegally targeting Bull Trout on the South Fork is pretty unambiguous. If you’re chucking big stuff down deep, you’re going after them, and the rules governing where and when this is ok are very clear.