As drones proliferate, Oregon parks agency is considering new rules

Oregonians have until Friday, April 15, to speak up about how they want drones regulated in state parks

April 11, 2022 5:30 am
Otter Crest State Scenic Viewpoint, view north

Oregonians have until Friday to weigh in on proposed state rules governing use of drones in state parks. (Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department)

For anyone who enjoys any of Oregon’s state parks or the coast, this is important.

You have until 5 p.m. Friday, April 15, to offer your opinion on new rules regulating drones at our state’s most cherished and iconic geographic sites.

In 2021, with the guidance and assistance of Kenji Sugahara, CEO and president of Drones Service Providers Alliance, an advocacy organization for “around 20,000 commercial drone users,” the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department secured legislation (SB 109) to create new rules governing drone use in state parks.

Sugahara and Chris Havel, the department’s assistant director, told legislators that the bill was needed because of increased conflicts between drone users, the public, and wildlife.

But in a strange twist, the proposed rules could put even more drones in the air with even less ability to inform, regulate, or enforce laws that could minimize conflict.

Under these rules, recreational drone operators could launch their unmanned craft from anywhere in a state park that is not designated otherwise. No permit, no education, no oversight is required.

The “prohibition zones” described in the rule would be designated sometime in the future for each of the 280 parks, and include campgrounds and possibly areas of particular scenic, cultural, or wildlife sensitivity.

But prohibition zones do not mean drones can’t fly over or around these particular areas. Havel says once in the air, the FAA has jurisdiction. He said that  even if areas such as bird nesting sites are protected by other laws, it is difficult to find local offending operators. Basically, say critics of the new rule, if a drone can launch most anywhere, then they will be able to fly most anywhere.

And that is just what drone operators are aiming for.

Across the country drone operators are working to free up airspace in places traditionally considered off limits to their fast-flying cameras.

Sugahara says Oregon has an opportunity to be “a national model” for widespread access to natural areas. He hopes if Oregon relaxes its rules, states like Colorado that now outlaw drones in most state parks will follow suit.

Sugahara thinks eventually, as technology makes drones quieter and easier to track and identify, drones will be so common they will be just a normal part of our landscape.

Sugahara was one of two private drone representatives on the Parks and Recreation Department’s rulemaking advisory committee. That committee met twice, once in November and once in January.

At the first meeting the two drone representatives were the only recreational advocates present. The lack of anyone from the conservation community, the state Fish and Wildlife Department, or representatives from other recreational uses such as hiking or climbing, may explain why Sugahara was able to convince government attendees to abandon the state parks proposal. That proposal followed similar rules adopted by the agency to limit conflict between other competing interests, like bikers versus hikers.

By designating drone takeoff and landing areas, the state could limit a drone’s range and ostensibly limit the conflict that tends to ensue between drones and wildlife and traditional recreationists.

But it didn’t take long into the two-hour meeting for Sugahara to convince fellow advisory board members that relegating drone takeoff and landing to specific sites would amount to “an outright ban.”

Instead, the committee agreed to Sugahara’s more “reasonable” approach to allow drones to take off and land from anywhere in a state park or on the coast except for designated sites and campgrounds.

“The difference may seem insignificant but it’s not,” said Joe Liebezeit, staff scientist for the Audubon Society.

Liebezeit and one other conservation representative were invited to attend the final meeting of the advisory committee after it was clear the state had not lived up to its commitment to the Legislature to create a committee composed of a “broad range” of interests. Liebezeit came into that meeting hoping to salvage the original proposal.

“We are not against drones. But since the state can’t control where drones fly, the best thing we can do to protect sensitive areas and traditional recreational use is to control where they take off and land. Limit that and you limit conflict and harm to our parks and to visitor experience,” he said.

Liebezeit said he was told by state parks staff that the original proposal was a no go.

For a growing number of people in Oregon, news that you may soon be able to fly your drone over almost any place in a state park or along the coast may sound amazing.

Dave Messina, president and CEO of the FPV Freedom Coalition, a drone users advocacy group, called the rule “the dream of FPV flyers and pilots.”

The State Parks and Recreation Department told lawmakers it would find a way to balance the values of its users. It’s now up to the people who were not invited to the table to speak up about whether they think the state’s proposed drone rules protect their values.

The Parks and Recreation Department extended the public comment period on the proposed rule changes to this Friday. Citizens can also testify before the state Parks and Recreation Commission, scheduled for 9:45 a.m. Wednesday, April 13, at The Oregon Garden in Silverton. People can sign up to testify online, and can either appear in person or testify via the internet.


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Naseem Rakha

Naseem Rakha is a former public radio reporter, news show host and commentator. She is an author of the novel "The Crying Tree," which was inspired by her time covering two executions in Oregon. Naseem spends her time hiking, climbing, rafting and photographing areas throughout the American West.