State Parks Considers Drone Regulations

Drone over the Oregon coast
Drone over the Oregon coast.\Photo courtesy of Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Drones have research and commercial uses, but recreational drone use, often by unskilled or reckless operators, is on the increase.  This can have serious impacts to wildlife, as well as other human activities, privacy, and solitude. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) is drafting new regulations governing the use of drones in state parks.  Since the department manages the entire Oregon shoreline, these regulations will be particularly important for public beaches and coastal wildlife.

The Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission, the panel which supervises OPRD, held a public hearing on the proposed drone regulations on Wednesday, April 13, during which many members of the public testified. Testimony could also be submitted via e-mail.  The official deadline for comment was April 15.  But it never hurts to make your voice heard. Comment at OPRD.publiccomment@oprd.oregon.gov. There has been keen public interest in this issue; OPRD has received well over a thousand comments. The majority of these comments ask for stronger drone regulation, or an outright ban in state parks and on the shoreline.  But it isn't an overwhelming majority.  Continue public engagement will be necessary if careful regulation of drones is to be achieved.

Oregon Shores joins with other concerned conservation groups in calling for much stricter regulations than were initially contemplated by OPRD staff.  We are submitting extensive comments backing up this demand.

OPRD can’t regulate where drones fly, only where they take off and land.  However, operators are supposed to keep drones in sight, so prohibiting take-offs and landings in buffer zones around important habitat areas can protect them from being buzzed, disturbing wildlife and human visitors.  It is therefore important that locations where drones can be operated be far enough from bird nesting or marine mammal pupping sites that legally operated drones can’t reach them.  (Illegally operated drones are another story, but it will be easier to report violations if it is clearly understood that no drone should be in a protected habitat area.)

Oregon Shores Executive Director Phillip Johnson serves on OPRD’s advisory committee for drone policy.  Both Oregon Shores and Portland Audubon (whose Joe Liebezeit also serves on the committee) are advocating that drones be prohibited on the coast except for specific locations where they are allowed.  This reverses the approach in OPRD’s initial draft of regulations, in which drones would be allowed except where prohibited.  Advocating for this more restrictive language is the single most important thing that members of the public can do to benefit wildlife.

Over a million seabirds and shorebirds nest along Oregon’s coastline every year, including the endangered Western Snowy Plover and species of concern like the Tufted Puffin and Black Oystercatcher. Wildlife disturbances due to improper drone use are increasing on the Oregon coast. Last year the Oregon Black Oystercatcher Project documented a rate of over three drone disturbances per week at active Black Oystercatcher nests. Marine mammals can also be driven off haul-out and pupping areas by drones.  Limiting drones through these regulations will help to protect these key habitat areas, while preserving peaceful experiences for those who want to explore Oregon’s natural places, observe wildlife, and recreate safely.

If you wish to contact OPRD to express your views, even outside the formal comment period, see the alert in our Take Action section for talking points.

The current draft of the rule revisions being considered is available here. After reviewing public comments, agency staff will present final amended rules for consideration by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission later this spring. For more information from OPRD, contact Katie Gauthier, (503) 510-9678, katie.gauthier@oprd.oregon.gov