ELY – Dave and Amy Freeman won’t be cited for taking photos with gear they used during their year-long visit to the Boundary Waters to raise awareness of the threats posed to the wilderness by a …
ELY – Dave and Amy Freeman won’t be cited for taking photos with gear they used during their year-long visit to the Boundary Waters to raise awareness of the threats posed to the wilderness by a proposed copper-nickel mine near Ely.
Dubbed “A Year in the Wilderness,” the trip drew national media coverage for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and served as a rallying point for opponents of the mine plan.
While that notoriety gained them supporters, it also attracted some detractors, including Mary Tome, an Ely area resident and Fall Lake Township supervisor, who alleged that the Freemans violated federal rules that seem to prohibit the use of federal lands for the marketing of commercial products, without a permit.
As the Freemans were concluding their 52-week adventure, Tome sent a letter to Kawishiwi District Ranger Gus Smith outlining what she viewed as violations. Tome said some of the blog entries posted by the Freemans depicted photographs of outdoors products, referred to in her letter as “props,” that were supplied by a variety of trip sponsors and used during their trip.
The Timberjay requested and obtained a copy of Tome’s letter from the Forest Service in late September. A copy is reprinted on page 12 in this week’s paper.
Tome said she became curious about the commercial permitting for the Freemans when she was made aware of their photographs that appeared on social media.
She admitted she does not agree with the Freemans and their opposition to sulfide mining near the BWCAW. “I think what they did was just a stunt,” she said. “They had the right to go (into the BWCA) for a year, but they also have to follow the law and the rules like everybody else.”
She pointed out that in her view, each commercial photograph they took and put on social media is a violation of the rules. “They should receive a ticket for each violation.”
Smith did investigate Tome’s concerns and acknowledges that the rules on commercial use of federal lands are a “gray area,” but he said they are rules that rarely come up and have never been enforced on the Superior National Forest to his knowledge. He noted that many local outfitters, outdoor equipment retailers, and other businesses routinely use photographs taken in the wilderness, and many include shots of outdoor gear, such as canoes, cookstoves, or packs.
“We can’t single them out,” said Smith. “For me to go after Dave and Amy when we have not done that in the past, I wouldn’t feel comfortable.”
Smith did meet with the Freemans earlier this week to discuss the situation. “After talking to them, I don’t feel like they clearly violated the rules, or had any understanding that what they were doing was a violation of any kind,” he said. “This rule is hard to regulate,” Smith added. “There are many books that have been published which include beautiful photographs from the BWCAW. Forest Service rules are not clear on that and we don’t know how to deal with it.”
To a large extent, the issue appears to hinge on the intent of the photos. A directive issued by Forest Service Chief Thomas L. Tidwell on Nov. 4, 2014, about filming and photography in the wilderness states in part:
“To further help differentiate between journalism and other activities, the following question should be asked: Is the primary purpose of the filming activity to inform the public, or is it to sell a product for a profit? If the primary purpose is to inform the public, then no permit is required and no fees assessed. I also want to emphasize that commercial photography only requires a permit if the photography takes place at locations where members of the public are not allowed, or uses models, sets, or props.”
The directive also said, “Commercial film and photography permit fees should be primarily viewed as land-use fees. If the activity presents no more impact on the land than that of the general public, then it shall be exempt from permit requirements.”
The Freemans maintain that their intent was plainly educational in nature. “The purpose of sharing photos and stories through blog posts, social media, interviews, and other forms of media was to educate people about the wilderness, how to travel, camp, and appreciate the wilderness responsibly, and raise awareness about the threats it faces,” said Dave Freeman in a response provided to the Timberjay. Freeman said he and his wife worked hard to comply with the rules of the wilderness and he noted that the couple had no contracts with any of the trip sponsors who provided them with gear, nor did they profit from occasionally discussing their use of various types of outdoor equipment. “Each year 250,000 people enjoy the Boundary Waters and thousands of visitors post photographs of Boundary Waters canoe trips (featuring people and gear) in mainstream media, social media, and elsewhere. I am not aware of anything done by us that differs from what these thousands of visitors do every day,” said Freeman.
And Smith noted that the Freemans’ blog posts and photos had no additional impact on the wilderness. “They didn’t damage the resource,” said Smith. “And that might be a good standard to use going forward.”
While Smith’s determination might be criticized by mining supporters, who may have hoped to discredit the Freemans, he said he has the support of his own supervisors further up the chain of command and he said he expects his determination will stand.
“I thought we were really tight on this,” Smith said, noting that the Freemans had applied for permits to film and to conduct research in the wilderness. “We spent a lot of time making it tight and they behaved themselves very, very well. I feel like they were totally above bar.”
But that hasn’t stopped critics. Smith notes that Tome has since sent him a letter raising concerns that the Freemans may be writing a book about their experience. Smith said that’s their right. “There are lots of books written about the Boundary Waters,” he said. “We have no ability to deny their right to write a book.”
Research and education
Smith said the Forest Service did issue the Freemans permits allowing research as well as commercial filming. “They collected water samples and conducted encounter monitoring such as gathering data on how many people they saw or encountered, how many airplanes flew over, how many distant boat motors they heard, and other human contact,” Smith said.
Through their Wilderness Classroom organization, the Freemans also connected with as many as 100,000 students and 3,200 teachers. They operated on a budget of about $45,000 to cover their expenses for the year. They accepted monetary and supply donations and some of their equipment was donated by manufacturers of outdoor products.
The Freemans are preparing reports for the USFS on the research data they collected, Smith said. “On the commercial filming aspect, they did not violate the terms of the permit we issued,” he said. “They did only what they were allowed to do.”