Flying drones in national parks and designated wilderness areas for commercial or recreational purposes is strictly forbidden under current federal law. However, states are free to determine whether these same restrictions apply in the case of their own park lands. Many have seconded the federal prohibition, largely out of concern for visitor and animal safety as well as noise and privacy concerns. Some allow limited flying, but only during the daytime, at appropriate altitudes, and in designated areas of their parks. And many require a special permit to do so.
But as the drone industry continues to expand, pressure is growing even on strict no-fly states to modify their state park bans to make way for expanded commerce and the growing need for recreational drone use. Take the case of Oregon, long-considered a hotbed of avid conservationists. In early 2021 drone enthusiasts in Oregon were able to convince the state Parks and Recreation Department to develop a sweeping proposal to lift its previous state park ban almost completely, allowing drones to fly virtually everywhere, with no restrictions. It was a stunning reversal in a state that assiduously protects its puffins and other endangered species in a series of adjacent wildlife preserves along its Pacific coast line. How did the state’s conservationists respond? Not well. Faced with increasingly vocal opposition, state officials suddenly realized they’d blundered and tabled their proposal. A new working group that includes members of the conservation community was formed, and a broader group of drone industry representatives was added to the mix. The new group now has until next spring to come up with a better, more balanced proposal.
Despite its rocky beginning, the current debate in Oregon may well be a model for how other states might proceed to open up their parks to drones. One idea being discussed is to create a three tiered “zone” system: in some areas drones will be free to fly, with virtually no restrictions; others will require a permit with approved periods of flight; and finally, there will be strict no-fly zones where drones are banned. Officials involved say a consensus is emerging that state parks are meant to serve the public and that recreational and even limited commercial use invariably involves some degree of “consumption” of natural resources; the benefits to humans are simply too great to ignore, state park officials say.
At the same time, drone enthusiasts involved in the new working group say they are fully cognizant of the needless destruction that can occur when pilots recklessly fly their aircraft too close to some animal habitats, especially during the breeding seasons of nesting birds. Many of the participants are aware – or have been made aware – of a critical incident that occurred last year on Bolsa Chica Reserve when apparently a single misdirected drone caused several thousand terrified Elegant Terns to abandon their eggs before they hatched, disrupting the entire breeding season and wreaking havoc on the birds and their habitat.
But the problem is largely one of increased public awareness, not penalties for non-compliance, drone enthusiasts say. Sometimes rogue drone operators do fly recklessly near wildlife but more often they are simply unaware of how vulnerable some habitats are to human disruption. Birds, for example, typically view drones as would-be predators and respond to their intrusions with a flight-or-flight reaction, either attacking the drones or fleeing en masse as they did at Bolsa Chica. Insiders say the deliberations of the working group have allowed for an unusual degree of mutual stakeholder education about the ways unmanned aerial aircraft interact with humans and wildlife and the possibilities for reaching meaningful compromise on future drone use in state parks.
The key issue at stake is not whether drones can overfly Oregon’s state parks to shoot exciting scenic videos for personal use or for marketing and promotional purposes. Those overflights, conducted at high enough altitudes, are rarely a direct threat to wildlife or to park visitors . However, the new regulations deal with drone launching and landing from within the park itself, and for what purposes, recreational or commercial, or both. That’s where conservationists, privacy experts and those seeking enjoyment of the park’s airspace without confronting a swarm of noisy low-flying drones must still work out the details of an agreement.
But the various slides are talking, with constructive results, insiders say. And that’s good news for the drone industry as the demand for drones continues to expand rapidly.