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Public Comment Period on Drone Use Underway
The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) has been at work on a plan for managing drone use in state parks and on the Oregon shore for well over a year. Based on concepts developed by an advisory working group (on which Oregon Shores was represented), OPRD staff is drafting maps showing where drone use will be allowed. The full mapping project won’t be completed until some point next year. Meanwhile, the public is invited to view and comment on the basic concepts for drone regulation and sample maps showing how areas where drones will be allowed or excluded are identified. A rule-making process leading to a final decision by the Parks and Recreation Commission won’t take place until sometime in 2024.
Now is the time for concerned members of the public to weigh in. A public comment period has begun, and runs through Dec. 29. You can submit written comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or via a form on the website. See below for Oregon Shores’ suggested talking points.
The department issued a packet with background information and the sample maps, which can be viewed here.
Background information on the drone issue
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 protecting public beaches and coastal wildlife from intrusion and disturbance.
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 located 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 work group 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); yellow (or 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.
The full mapping project won’t be completed until some point next year. As noted, OPRD is waiting for the results of the current public comment period before producing final versions of the proposed maps. (Whether these maps are truly final, or will then be subjected to public review, is a key issue.)
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.
Key talking points
*OPRD should take a precautionary approach to protecting wildlife. Areas should be zoned green only if there is a high degree of certainty that the approach of a drone won’t disturb wildlife.
*Wildlife should be given stronger protection in the criteria. Suggest that two of the criteria currently listed for conditional (yellow) zones be shifted to prohibited (red) zones: Areas where wildlife concentrate for migration, breeding, nesting, or wintering; and areas that contain critical habitat for state or federally protected species that are negatively affected by drones. Important habitat for non-listed species could become a criterion for conditional uses.
*Public input on the maps themselves is critical to this process. The upcoming meeting and the current comment period are based on three sample maps. In order to understand the on-the-ground implications of the proposed drone rules, and offer meaningful feedback based on local knowledge, members of the public must have the opportunity to see and comment on the actual maps. As for a new public meeting and 60-day comment period once all the maps are available for consideration.
*Ask that the maps not include small green zones where drones are permitted surrounded by or adjacent to red or yellow zones. OPRD seems inclined to allow for such special areas of particular interest to drone users for one reason or another, but once drones are in the air they are sure to wander into areas where they don’t belong.
*OPRD has indicated that once the new rules are formally adopted, the agency will take an “adaptive management” approach to administering them, allowing for adjustments once there has been a chance to see how they work in practice. Urge that OPRD lay out a clear, formal process within this adaptive framework, that includes a petition process enabling members of the public to appeal to the relevant decision-maker for map adjustments.
*Ask for a review after a year, with a public comment period, to garner input from the public on what is working and whether modifications are needed.
*If you favor exclusion of drones from areas valued for solitude and quiet, or bird and wildlife watching with which drones might interfere, try to provide specific descriptions of areas you believe should be drone-free for these reasons. Stories of encounters with drones could be particularly valuable.
*If you favor complete exclusion of drones, by all means say so. Oregon Shores has committed to trying to make this compromise process work, but that needn’t constrain you. There are states that ban drones entirely from their state parks.
*Ask that OPRD favor comments from Oregonians, rather than messages generated by out-of-state recreational drone user advocacy groups.
*Ask that permits be required for all drone use. Such permits will make it easier to gather data on drone use, and can be a nexus at which would-be users are provided with education about best practices. Suggest also that there be a fee for drone permits, which could help to fund OPRD’s program.
For more information from OPRD, contact Katie Gauthier, (503) 510-9678, email@example.com. For more about Oregon Shores’ position, contact Phillip Johnson, (503) 754-9303, firstname.lastname@example.org.