Our public lands are being dronified
On National Public Lands Day a few years ago, I celebrated by climbing in the City of Rocks in Idaho. I was leading the second pitch of a classic route on the Lost Arrow Spire. The pitch lacks good protection. I was 15 feet above my last piece of gear, but the climbing was easy and secure, so I wasn’t worried.
Suddenly, I heard a loud buzzing noise directly above me. Startled, I jerked my head up and around to see what it was. Before I realized it, I had lost my balance: My sudden, involuntary movement nearly took me off the wall. As I felt myself slipping, I pulled my hips in close to the smooth granite, took a few deep breaths and held fast. By the time we completed the descent, I saw what had nearly caused me to fall. It was a drone, and it was still flying around me.
That day in the City of Rocks was merely one more example of outdoor experiences plagued by large buzzing objects. Whether it’s skiing in Utah’s Wasatch Range, rafting the Colorado River outside Moab, or climbing at Smith Rock in Central Oregon, my friends and I find ourselves beset by drones.
So far, the National Park Service is the only land management agency in the country that has banned drones. But the ban doesn’t seem to be working. An incident in Yosemite this summer could have ended tragically when a drone nearly collided with a Park Service helicopter. Drones are allowed on Bureau of Land Management areas and most U.S. Forest Service lands, with the exception of designated wilderness areas. Even worse, a court ruled that noncommercial drone pilots do not have to register with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Within lands managed by the states, regulations vary significantly, but generally speaking, they tend to be loose, confusing or nonexistent. Even when a few regulations do exist, they seem to be ignored by the everyday user and commercial entities.
The danger of being outside when drones are flying is significant. As an outdoor educator, I find myself instructing groups about safety and risk management in backcountry settings. When I am giving a climbing group directions about how to belay safely, for example, and a drone flies overhead, my students’ attention automatically shifts from me and goes to the drone. I have experienced the same phenomenon while giving safety briefings at boat ramps before rafting trips or when trying to manage groups in avalanche terrain. Drones are compelling distractions that inhibit communication and divert people from the important, perhaps essential, information in front of them. Drones make the outdoors dangerous.
Additionally, drones go against the very concept of Leave No Trace. Agree with these principles or not, they have been adopted by nearly every federal and state agency in the country. The Leave No Trace ethic asks us to respect all other visitors in the outdoors. But I doubt that skiers feel respected when a drone flies right above their powder run, disrupting their concentration. The same goes for paddlers on a river, firefighters confronting an out-of-control wildfire, runners on a trail and climbers on a mountain.
Another principle of Leave No Trace involves respect for wildlife, and it can be assumed that wild animals would much prefer to live in peace and quiet, without noisy, frightening machines buzzing in the air around them. If drone pilots wish to abide by Leave No Trace guidelines, they need to reconsider when and where they go for a flight.
The cost of drones has come down nearly 70 percent since they were introduced, which explains why drone sales in the United States have nearly doubled since 2015. With the drone market seeing such success, it means that outdoor recreationists can purchase one without having to break the bank. That means that we are now at a point where drones are just as intrusive and potentially dangerous as they used to be, and even more prevalent than they were before. It is time to change our regulations and lower our tolerance level.
This isn’t to say that all drones should be banned. They certainly have their uses – helping with search-and-rescue missions, for example. However, with the FAA predicting that drones will continue to increase in popularity, we need to advocate for responsible and careful drone piloting on public lands. A good place to start might be requiring registration, licenses or education courses. Meanwhile, the next time I see a drone in the outback, I’ll be tempted to throw a rock at it.
Nick McEachern is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an outdoor educator and who splits his time between central Oregon, Salt Lake City and Teton Valley, Idaho.