There are currently no rules for taking off or landing a drone at a state park in Oregon. Individual state parks can, however, restrict operating a drone in certain areas or at certain times of the year to protect public safety or wildlife, such as nesting bald eagles and western snowy plovers. But now that’s changing. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department is in the process of drafting new rules for operating drones within state parks and along the coast, which could be finalized as early as June. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department is accepting public comment on their proposed rules for the takeoff and landing of drones until April 15. You can submit a public comment online or send an email to OPRD.email@example.com.
Joining us to share more about the proposed rules and what’s at stake are Chris Havel, associate director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, and Kenji Sugahara, a drone pilot, lawyer and the president and CEO of the Drone Service Providers Alliance, a national organization that advocates on behalf of commercial drone pilots.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: There are currently no statewide rules for taking off or landing drones at state parks in Oregon, but they are on their way. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has proposed draft rules for operating drones within state parks and along the coast. You could submit public comments on the proposal up until this coming Thursday. The rules could be finalized as early as June. For more on what’s being proposed, I’m joined by Chris Havel, the associate director of Oregon Parks and Recreation and Kenji Sugahara. He’s a drone pilot, a lawyer and an advocate for commercial drone pilots. Why are rules needed now for drones in state parks or along the coast?
Chris Havel: Well, it is an increasingly popular form of recreation and the state park system hasn’t had the legislative ability to pass rules on its own. It needed legislative permission before it could go to rulemaking. And we just got that last year. So, while it’s been increasing for some time, we just now have the authority to jump in and start looking at ways to manage it.
Miller: It’s been increasing. How common is it now for people to fly drones in these places in state parks or over beaches?
Havel: Well, because you don’t have to talk to anybody before you do it, it’s hard to get a handle on exactly how common it is. But we do hear from visitors and even drone pilots who want to know where they can go, what the rules are. And we see them on our own, especially around the really iconic places, headlines on the beach and waterfalls and historic buildings, that sort of thing.
Miller: Kenji Sugahara, what has it meant in practice that there haven’t been clear statewide rules about flying drones in these places?
Kenji Sugahara: What happens is you end up getting user conflicts. For example, you get individuals flying over areas such as Multnomah Falls where there’s a lot of people and there could be issues. There’s already federal regulations against flying over people but some people just show poor judgment and I think having clear rule sets is going to be beneficial to everyone.
Miller: Have you also seen the opposite where you as a lawyer and a kind of expert on what’s allowed have been legally in the right but you’ve had people say you can’t fly a drone here?
Sugahara: Oh, absolutely. That happens all the time. And it’s like, wait a second. You don’t quite understand the regulatory structure or the laws around the drones. And usually when we have a conversation, people are usually very receptive to getting a good education on what’s legal and what’s not.
Miller: I’m surprised you say that because, I mean in society now, it doesn’t always seem that people are receptive to being told what’s legal and what’s not by just some random person. But for the most part you’re saying you’ve had good experiences?
Sugahara: Yeah. Mostly because I’m pretty knowledgeable and in one instance I had an Oregon state trooper come over and say, ‘hey, you can’t be flying here.’ I’m like, wait a second, I can fly here and here. The reasons why.
Miller: And where were you when he said you couldn’t and you said yes, I can?
Sugahara: At the state capitol.
Miller: And you said yes, I can. And what did he say?
Sugahara: I let him know that I had spoken with the sound tower, because it’s right near an airport, and had gotten permission. I also let him know about the state preemption statute in regards to the ability to regulate drones - [that it] is solely vested in the legislature. And I ended up talking with him about drones and now he’s a drone enthusiast and he actually has a drone business as well.
Miller: So you stayed in touch with him and he got into drones because of you?
Miller: Okay, I want to go back to what kinds of issues have cropped up with drones in the places we’re talking about here - in state parks or over beaches?
Havel: Thank you for pointing out the difference between those things. State parks generally are pretty small, even though most people know the big ones, places like Silver Falls and Fort Stevens and Wallowa. And we do hear from people who are upset when their experience is interfered with, in their view, by somebody flying a drone either too close or obstructing the view of something important. We also do hear from our partners and from visitors who are concerned about some of the natural resource impacts associated with drone use. And that’s something that is a real challenge for us on the ground, because we’re pretty thinly staffed, when you look at how popular the state park system is. And concerns about disturbing wildlife, especially nesting birds, comes up pretty frequently in our conversations with partners.
Miller: So the concern there would be not at takeoff necessarily or landing. But when it’s flying around, a drone could get close to a nest and bother the birds who are living there?
Havel: Yes. And the whole takeoff landing and flying thing is also important. Understand we don’t have the authority as a state agency to control where somebody flies. Airspace is not controlled by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, but we do have the authority to pass rules about takeoff and landing. But, given the range of a drone, where you take off and land does affect how far into a park you can get - how far up and down the ocean shore you can get. So, there’s a relationship between those things that we’re trying to be made mindful of here.
Miller: So if you can’t regulate what happens when a drone is in the air, how could you say ‘no you can’t do this’ if somebody is flying a drone right next to an eagle’s nest?
Havel: Well there are rules - both federal rules and state park rules - that do speak to harassing wildlife. So that’s not a drone specific rule. But just as you can’t, on foot, harass wildlife, you also can’t do it with any equipment that you might be operating. The challenge with a drone is that it can get to areas where you can’t get by foot or with a vehicle such as a bike or a car. So it just takes a little more care when you’re both writing rules and enforcing them to understand how these technologies are different. But it is a terrific challenge. If you see a drone, that doesn’t mean you can look at an operator and have a discussion with them about protecting a park. So you know the rules can be difficult to enforce in this kind of environment.
Miller: Is there a technical solution to that last problem that Chris just mentioned um ways to tie a drone to a particular drone operator?
Sugahara: In fact there is. As of September 2022, all drones manufactured for sale in the U. S. will have to have what’s called remote I. D. And remote I.D. is a digital license plate for a drone that can be picked up by a common cell phone. And then all drones will need to be rule compliant by September 2023. So that will give you information about the digital license plate, the drone you’re looking at. So it just gives you some information about the drone itself.
Miller: We’re talking right now about draft rules for drone operators in Oregon state parks and along the coast. If you actually want to see the rules that we’re talking about that are being proposed and to put forward your own comments, you have two more days to do it. And there is a link to the state parks page where you can give your comments on our website at: OPB.org/ThinkOutLoud. Among other things, Kenji, you helped work on these proposed rules for drone takeoffs and landings. What were you trying to balance?
Sugahara: One of the things that, as you noted in my many titles, I’m also a former Oregon Tourism Commissioner and one of the things that’s very important is visitor experience as well. So I understand that there needed to be a balance struck between being able to fly drones and then other interests - visitors as well as wildlife. So I thought helping state parks come up with a very reasonable set of regulations would benefit everyone - not only drone operators, but people and also wildlife as well.
Miller: Chris, can you give us the broad strokes of what these proposed rules actually say and mean?
Havel: Sure. The draft that’s out right now spells out sort of a tiered approach to managing drone recreation and parks. It starts with the fact that you can fly a drone anywhere that’s not closed. And there are certain kinds of areas that you can expect either be closed or restricted, either to protect the natural resource or historic buildings like a lighthouse. Also to prevent drones over things like campgrounds, where people have a little more expectation of having some space to themselves. So the rules set out that basic approach. Places are open unless we find a reason to close them and here are the possible reasons. There are some areas which might be closed part of the time where you need to get permission from us first. You need to ask if there are any concerns in that area? So you can see sort of the three layer cake:There are areas that are closed all the time because the resources are well known; Areas that are closed part of the time and you might need permission; And then areas where you don’t need a special permit at all. You just need to follow the basic rules of avoiding harm - not disturbing wildlife and those sorts of things.
Miller: So theoretically the agency could have gone the opposite direction with prohibition being the norm. And then instead of there being certain places that are no-drone zones or no drone zones, some times of the year, it would be ‘this is a place where you can fly your drone’. What would that have meant to you and other operators?
Sugahara: The practical impact is, for example, out in Tennessee. There’s a city that has sort of the same idea and what has ended up happening is that drones are limited to a tiny little corner in the [state] park and are just forgotten and nobody flies there because there’s nothing interesting there. So the structure that has come up is, we think, a good compromise because it’s narrowly tailored to the harm that is trying to be prevented. Which is where there are user conflicts or heavy user conflicts. And it’s designed to sort of enable people to fly where there aren’t any conflicts. So I think it’s a win-win for everyone.
Miller: What has changed in terms of the technology of drones over the last decade that could affect not just drone operators, but the people who aren’t using drones and the non drone pilots?
Sugahara: The drones are getting smaller and they’re also getting quieter. So right now a lot of the larger drones - you hear them. It’s like a hive of bees and it can get very annoying. But as technology improves, they are going to get quieter. And of course out of sight, out of mind. So again, user conflicts are reduced and your visitor experiences also improved because there’s less noise.
Miller: I was wondering what kind of a game changer it would be if, for example, snowmobiles were a lot quieter than they are. How would that change the experience of people who don’t want to hear snowmobiles as they’re in the woods?
Havel: Um, so we don’t have many winter recreation areas that involve snowmobiles, but I do want to bounce back to this sense of balance that you brought up. First, noise is not the only form of disturbance from a drone. There are birds that react simply to the site of something airborne. If they feel like it’s a predator, they’ll move off their nest even if they can’t hear it. Places like the Oregon coast are pretty noisy. Here in this draft rulemaking, I want to be clear. Our rules are not set even though we’ve got a proposal out and people are responding to it. We’ve gotten hundreds of comments, 700 as of this morning. And there’s a pretty clear divide where people are still asking for us to go back a bit to the drawing board and look at taking the approach that you just mentioned - where it’s - let’s leave areas closed until we can prove we’re not doing any harm and then open them. Those sound like similar outcomes, where you’re going to end up with the same map that shows areas where you can fly and areas where you can’t. But we need to be very careful here to weigh all of the comments that we’re getting in. It’s very split right now. It’s about half and half as most things are these days where people have opinions on both sides. And we’re going to be taking a really serious look at that and we may end up extending the comment period if we feel like we’re still hearing new kinds of thoughts from people over the next week. So we’ll make that decision by tomorrow.
Miller: Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying though. It sounds like you’re saying it is possible that you’re going to go in the direction that Kenji just said he didn’t want. You actually could come up with a more restrictive set of rules regarding drone operation?
Havel: Anything is possible and we have a good relationship with drone pilots generally and with people who use state parks. But we do a public comment period for a reason. We don’t just do it to validate our own brilliant text, although it is, you know, it’s brilliant text. (laughter by all participants) But you have to be open to change. That’s why you do public comment. So I don’t know whether it’s going to change or not. What I do know is that we tend to be very careful when we put a rule on the books. And if we see that there’s a way forward that involves changing the text to make it more restrictive, we’ll do it. And we can always amend it. But we take the public process pretty seriously for stuff like this.
Miller: Chris Havel and Kenji Sugahara, thanks very much. Chris Havel is an associate director for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Kenji Sugahara is an attorney and a licensed drone pilot and the President and CEO of Drone Service Providers Alliance. It’s a non-profit that advocates on behalf of drone service providers.
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