Are Drones Like E-Bikes? Or, is the Forest Level the Right Place to Decide, and Is There/Should There Be Some Form of National Direction?

Drones.. are some uses OK and others not? Video of Sequoia NF
Video of Sequoia

I’ve been reviewing some of the posts since I was gone, and thought the topic of drone decisions as brought up by Patrick McKay with regard to the GMUG plan revision.

You may remember when it came to e-bike policy, the Forest Service issued a generic policy and then suggested that each unit make site-specific decisions (as did BLM, see Steve’s post here).
Is this the current policy?

1. is there a generic national drone policy to which the GMUG is responding?
2. Is a forest plan the right place to make the decision (and if so, does that mean no decisions until all revisions are complete (in 20-30 years))?
3. Should a generic policy be harmonized at least between the BLM and the FS due to interconnected lands/potential for confusion?
4. Since it seems that drones would be handy indeed for various forms of law enforcement that are otherwise difficult to afford in spread out spaces, e.g. this story from Hamilton, Ontario, would there be separate rules for law enforcement’s/ emergency rescue’s use of them? Researchers? Managers of wildlife/trees/recreation/fire?

This interesting article in Sierra Magazine (about drones in Parks) points out that 1. It’s hard to enforce. 2. Scientists use them all the time as well as search and rescue folks, and 3) they can also be used for management activities including PB.

The effort to keep parks drone-free is complicated by the fact that the machines have become indispensable to scientific research. “We have folks using them for various mapping purposes [and] surveys,” says Kristin Swoboda, a fixed-wing fleet and UAS specialist at the National Park Service. Her department receives weekly requests to record caves and archaeological sites, light prescribed burns, and monitor geologic events like landslides and glacial retreat.

Small aircraft are perfect for these tasks, especially fire management. “A helicopter is a whole lot more expensive and risky,” Buehler says. With prescribed burns, “you basically have someone leaning out the door trying to ignite fires with [something like] a paintball gun.” In the past five years, at least three people have died in helicopter crashes connected to prescribed burns in national forests. Drones can drop fire-starting agents remotely. “We by all means do not want to crash drones, but if we do, it’s not killing anybody.”

UAS are also increasingly considered essential to search-and-rescue operations. In 2017, Arizona’s Tonto Rim SAR team used drones to map safer rappels while recovering the body of a fall victim, and Colorado’s Douglas County SAR rescued two lost hikers in Pike National Forest after spotting them with a drone. “It’s really hard to find people, and drones are yet another tool,” says Morris Hansen, the lead drone pilot and vice president of Douglas County SAR. Some models carry enough weight that they can be used to drop supplies to victims or safely get a rope to them.

Other questions or thoughts?

12 thoughts on “Are Drones Like E-Bikes? Or, is the Forest Level the Right Place to Decide, and Is There/Should There Be Some Form of National Direction?”

  1. I like the remote ID idea from the linked article. Fines could be automatically sent for infractions. Of course many drones, maybe most, aren’t registered with the FAA. Without enforcement most rules are simply ignored, and I think most public land agencies don’t enforce much of anything. Never heard of drone operators getting fined.

  2. I’ll have more to say later, but to answer Sharon’s question this is the closest thing the Forest Service has to a national drone policy:

    It’s more guidelines than an official policy, and nothing that has been formally adopted through APA rulemaking. The gist of it is obey FAA regulations, don’t fly in Wilderness areas or near firefighting operations, and don’t harrass wildlife. Beyond that you can fly pretty much anywhere, though they recommend not flying near campgrounds and other places where you might annoy people. All pretty reasonable stuff.

    In CO, drones are banned in a few specific locations like Hanging Lake and Maroon Lake by Forest Order, but you can pretty much fly anywhere else outside of designated Wilderness. I’ve also seen a few orders seasonally restricting them around specific raptor nesting areas.

    The GMUG proposed restrictions are completely unprecedented and if passed would be completely inconsistent with how drones are managed in every other Colorado National Forest, and possibly every other one nationally, though I haven’t researched all of them to be sure.

  3. It’d be really easy to regulate this in the wrong way, maybe even inevitable. But the FAA has been working on this one for years.

    Regulating a drone operator in the same way as you regulate a full size aircraft pilot was thought to be a solution, especially those who operate drones as part of their business. But there’s been lots of pushback from model airplane makers, which for myself and many others was a right of passage of childhood.

    So the FAA decided to only regulate drones greater than 250 grams or (0.55 pounds). So as you might imagine there’s been plenty of effort to build super small high performance drones that weigh less than 250 grams… Some of these are built and programed by competitive racers and can fly super fast and are gonna be very difficult to regulate:

    “The fastest drones, weighing just 798g, can complete laps at speeds of close to 290km/hr. (180mph)”

    Much easier to regulate is drone manufacturers who’ve been forced to install geo-fencing and wireless ID in the software, which means if you tried to fly your store bought drone over the White House, not only would the drone software refuse that flight path but the coordinates of the operator and the drone would show up in FAA’s tracking system. Though I doubt FAA has the ability to track drones in remote location on federal lands, but geo-fencing would still be possible.

    There’s going to be lots to talk about in coming years, especially because many recreational enthusiasts document their travels with drones that are programed to follow them autonomously. It’s truly fascinating to watch the highly cinematic footage of drones follow people through a forest without crashing into any trees:

    And of course when it comes to filming, because everyone has a high quality camera on their phone and how youtube works, the simple days of requiring film makers to get a permit is no longer a realistic enforcement priority:

    “The National Park Service has changed its nationwide permit requirements so that commercial filmmakers no longer have to pay fees or seek clearance as long as shoots are not in the wilderness and remain small. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly issued a permanent injunction halting the filming requirements after she found the fees could have a “chilling effect” for a wide swath of visitors to national parks.”

  4. This is an interesting and timely discussion. While working with the Southwest Oregon Community College F 251 Forest Recreation class the past four years — and prior to “distance learning” lectures and “virtual” field trip videos the past two — we ( promoted the use of video drones to monitor forest trails and streams as something high school and community college students could do as paying (or at least educational/training) jobs:

    Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic interceded and the students were unable to try this out. A subsequent effort to use this technology on BLM Land in the Archie Creek Fire (Douglas County, Oregon) in lieu of field trips and “Show Me” timber sales fell on deaf ears. I still think this is the way to go to keep the public informed as to actual conditions following a catastrophic event, and for resource managers to use during decision-making processes.

  5. I’ve had a couple of unpleasant recreational experiences with drones – one in a California state park where it was buzzing around in the tops of the redwoods, and another where it turned out that the drone was better informed about the wilderness boundary than I was. But I agree that forest plans are not the place to regulate their use, and I can even quote the planning regulations: “A plan does not regulate uses by the public” (36 CFR §219.2(b)(2), which also mentions instead using closure orders under 36 CFR Part 261).

    Drone use differs from other motorized uses because it is not subject to the Travel Management Rule, which provides a process for making decisions about public use of motorized vehicles, and must be consistent with strategic decisions in a forest plan. It maybe has more in common with (non-e) mountain bike use in this regard. However, forest plans may make decisions about desired Recreation Opportunity Spectrum classes, which could be used to address drones. This is getting beyond my area of expertise, but one of the factors is remoteness: “Remoteness refers to the extent to which individuals perceive themselves removed from the sights and sounds of human activity.” A forest plan decision to manage for that could also identify drones as incompatible, leading to subsequent closure orders and/or requirements for permits.

    • Precisely. One point I’ve made in my comments on drone issues is that Forest Plan management areas are solely the creature of obscure bureaucratic documents that most members of the public have no idea exist. So if you try to regulate drone use in the Forest Plan, how are members of the public going to know about those restrictions, and even if they do, how are they going to know if they are in a prohibited zone or not?

      The current rule of just not flying in Wilderness areas is easy to comply with since Wilderness areas are clearly marked on public maps, and as Jon mentioned are even marked in some drones’ geofencing software. Forest Plan management areas are not, so drone users will likely have no clue if they are in a “recommended wilderness area” or “special management area” etc. under the Forest Plan. The more complex you make these rules, the more difficult they will be to communicate to the public and the less likely people are to comply with them simply because of lack of knowledge.

      That problem doesn’t go away if the actual prohibitions are implemented through Forest Orders. Even though they should, most people don’t know to check the Forest Orders page for their local National Forest before heading out to recreate, so if that’s the only notice given of drone prohibitions most people won’t be aware of them. Forest Orders also typically have terrible maps that give only a vague idea of exact boundaries and would be hard to use in the field.

      In order to really be effective, the Forest Service would either need to publish georeferenced “drone use maps” like they with the MVUMs, or else work with third party mapping companies and drone manufacturers to get these exclusion zones included in common mapping apps and drone geofencing databases. The question is, how much work do they actually want to do to make these rules effective when they don’t even have a clear rationale for them to begin with?

      • Patrick… wouldn’t it be great if all BLM and FS lands had georeferenced what was allowed and not allowed about all things… like dispersed camping, MVUM, drones, dogs off leashes, etc…

        • Seriously. I’ve been playing around a lot with various maps and GIS data sets from land management agencies and it’s astonishing how bad they are. The Moab Field Office actually does provide a georefenced map of where dispersed camping is or is not allowed, but it’s so bad that looking at it you can’t even tell whether restricted zones are above or below canyon rims. I’ve pretty much had to go there and see where my location dot is to figure out if camping is allowed in an area. And of course for the areas where it’s restricted to designated campsites they don’t show where the designated campsites are. That would be too much to ask.

      • Here’s the requirements for providing public notice of closure orders:

        36 CFR § 261.51 Posting.

        “Posting is accomplished by:

        (a) Placing a copy of the order imposing each prohibition in the offices of the Forest Supervisor and District Ranger, or equivalent officer who have jurisdiction over the lands affected by the order, and

        (b) Displaying each prohibition imposed by an order in such locations and manner as to reasonably bring the prohibition to the attention of the public.”

        If they don’t do this, they probably can’t enforce a closure order – but they probably have a lot of discretion for how they do it.

    • Practically every animal and especially prey animals will react that way. I have seen deer run and be HARRASSED by a drone. Great drone owner. (which is why I am for them being banned everywhere but flight parks)

      • Hi D: I think drones can serve a real function in managing forested environments outside of flight parks, too. Earlier in this discussion I posted a link to a 14-minute video that I had prepared for a Southwest Oregon Community College (SWOCC) recreational forestry class — right before the pandemic, but later got integrated into a “distance learning” lab. Drones would be great on regulated routes (no cows, few deer) following roads, trails, and creeks at periodic intervals for inventory and management purposes, and perhaps especially following major wildfires, windstorms, landslides, etc. Here is the link:


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