Drone advisory committee on the beach at Nehalem State Park.

Drone advisory committee on the beach at Nehalem State Park.Photo by Kenji Sugahara, ironically from a drone.

Update: The public will soon have an opportunity to comment on how drone use should be regulated in state parks. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD), which has been working to develop a plan for drone management, has announced that as of Oct. 23 information about the draft plan will be posted online. They initially announced that on Nov. 1 an online informational meeting and “open house” would be held, but then realized that this conflicted with a different OPRD event; a new date has not yet been selected. The comment period will run until “mid-December.” More details will appear here when available.

OPRD has been at work on a plan for managing drone use for well over a year. Based on feedback from an advisory committee (on which Oregon Shores was represented), OPRD staff is at work on drafting maps showing where drone use will be allowed. The advisory committee was shown sample maps for several areas at a meeting on July 7, and made comments that will be incorporated; these same sample maps will be shown the public. The full mapping project won’t be completed until some point well into the fall or later. A rule-making process leading to a final decision by the Parks and Recreation Commission probably won’t take place until sometime in 2024.

The department issued a packet with background information and the sample maps, which can be viewed here.

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 regulations now being considered by OPRD are especially important to the coast, 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 held a public hearing on the proposed drone regulations in April of 2022, during which many members of the public testified. There has been keen public interest in this issue; OPRD received well over a thousand comments. The majority of these comments asked for stronger drone regulation, or an outright ban in state parks and on the shoreline. Oregon Shores joined with other concerned conservation groups in calling for much stricter regulations than were initially contemplated by OPRD staff.  We submitted 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 Conservation 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 for strong restrictions on the coast except for specific locations where they are allowed.  The committee has now held four meetings.  The goal this workgroup gravitated toward is to develop a set of criteria for mapping three zones:  red zones, where drones are prohibited, save with carefully administered special use permits (such as for scientific research); orange zones, where drones may be permitted, with various types of limits, also requiring permits; and green zones, where drones are permitted.  A permit may be required for green zones as well, readily available but providing an opportunity for OPRD to keep track of drone use and to ask drone operators to read a set of best practices; this is still under consideration.

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. We are arguing for liberal use of red zones on the coast. Conservation voices may be needed if the draft maps don’t include extensive enough red zones to preserve wildlife, or if the criteria for orange zones aren’t stringent enough.

For more information from OPRD, contact Katie Gauthier, (503) 510-9678, katie.gauthier@oprd.oregon.gov. For more about Oregon Shores’ position, contact Phillip Johnson, (503) 754-9303, phillip@oregonshores.org.