LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON — Christie Gibson's passion is photography, which gives her a front-row introduction to meeting all kinds of people and a way to marvel at the wonders of Utah's stunning geography.
Her marvel at nature transformed into dismay, however, when she recently learned she has to pay a $125 special use permit fee to shoot at Little Cottonwood Canyon's Albion Basin, renowned for its spectacular display of summer wildflowers.
"I've never needed a permit for any of the mountainous shoots I have ever done," she said, adding that she's been a full-time photographer for four years and shooting for 16 years.
"Albion Basin, once it blooms, it is a serious hot spot because it is so beautiful up there," she said.
That "hot spot" is why the Forest Service recently began cracking down by reminding professional photographers that they need to get a permit and then pay $50 for each individual shoot.
"This summer there has been a lot of resource impacts due to the large amount of photographers going off trail. The town of Alta, Alta Ski Resorts and the Forest Service … it's just being witnessed by a lot of land managers," said Polly Bergseng, who is over recreation and land special uses for the Forest Service's Salt Lake Ranger District.
Chauntelle Janzer, another photographer, said she had her own family photos taken at Albion Basin three years ago and shot a family portrait for a client last year with no mention of the need for a permit. She said the canyon's information booth began handing out details about the necessity of a permit a couple of weeks ago.
Gibson and Janzer say it is unfair to single out photographers.
"I think there is a better way to do this," Gibson said. "There is a better way to enforce it. They can start fining people and put up signs. It feels to me this is being pushed on photographers to pay."
Bergseng said all commercial business activities require a special use permit on Forest Service land, and that includes still photography.
Gibson believes the rule is being wrongly interpreted to apply to still photographers who are not engaged in large-scale promotion of a product but rather are hired to shoot individuals.
Bergseng said it doesn't matter.
"It doesn't matter how large or how small, if someone is making money off of public lands, they're required to pay the fee," she said.
Bergseng added that the purpose of the permit is to help the Forest Service lay out ground rules to minimize damages to resources.
The rule applies nationwide to the entire Forest Service system of lands, but invoking the requirement of a permit in strict fashion varies from district to district.
In 2017, the town of Alta recorded over 80,000 visitors between July 1 and Sept. 5.
"Lots of groups of photographers are going off trail, trampling the flowers, picking the flowers and inadvertently creating new trails where there are none," Bergseng said. "In general, due to the increased resource impacts in the area, there has been increased education in the area."
Gibson and other photographers say they are unfairly being targeted unlike other visitors and they should be able to access public land just like anyone else.
"This has stirred the photography community drastically since this is more expensive than what most clients and most photographers can afford," Gibson said.50 comments on this story
The requirement of a permit, she added, means that accessing public lands are more expensive than local gardens or private venues like Thanksgiving Point.
"Photographers are scared right now, especially up the Cottonwood canyons. This creates a real hit on photographers. These are small businesses or sometimes hobbyists," Gibson said.
The penalty for no permit ranges from a warning to up to $500, Bergseng said, but the Forest Service is emphasizing its educational campaign at this point.
"We are not ticketing," she said. "It is not a 'gotcha' kind of thing."