The popularity of hobby drones has soared within the last year. It is estimated that close to one million consumer drones were sold in the U.S. last holiday season. All new drones between 0.55 and 55 pounds must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). An FAA report estimates that sales are expected to grow from 2.6 million drones in 2016 to 7 million in 2020.
However, recreational drone use can have unintended consequences. The State of California Department of Parks and Recreation is divided into 22 districts. The department does not have a blanket ban on drones, and has left the decision on whether or not to allow recreational drones up to the 22 individual districts in the state.
At the beginning of July, Bay Area District Superintendent Danita Rodriguez issued an order closing the parks in the district to drones and other unmanned aircraft. The Bay Area District includes state parks in Marin and Sonoma counties, including Jack London State Historic Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, and Annadel State Park.
In supporting the ban, park officials cite potential disturbances to wildlife, public safety issues, and negative impacts on other park patrons.
Rodriguez said that the order was posted at each state park. It’s possible that drone users violating the order could be cited by a park ranger, but Rodriguez said, like other park violations, it’s up to the discretion of the ranger.
The order allows for people to ask for exceptions by writing to Rodriguez.
As for parks run by the County’s Regional Parks department (such as Sonoma Valley Regional Park, Plaza Park and Shaw Park), Regional Parks Manager Bert Whitaker said that current County ordinances restrict flying airplanes or any model crafts unless there is a designated area for such purpose. At the moment, said Whitaker, there are no designated areas for drones. Whitaker said there have been a few reports of drones at Helen Putnam Park near Petaluma and at Doran Beach and parks personnel have posted signage and contacted individuals to inform them that drones are not permitted.
Cyndy Shafer, Natural Resource Program Manager for the Bay Area District, said the drone ban is necessary to protect wildlife, such as birds during nesting season. There was a situation in China Camp State Park in San Rafael where a drone disrupted breeding rails, which thought the drone was a predator, said Shafer.
“Our state parks are a refuge for wildlife,” said Shafer. “We need to take a cautionary approach. Most people have good intentions and don’t want to harm wildlife, but if they don’t know how far away to be, there can be a negative impact.”
Shafer also cited drone impacts on other people’s enjoyment of a park’s quiet and solitude.
Drones used improperly can also cause a safety issue during situations like rescue operations and fighting wildfires. Earlier this summer, CalFire enforcement officers actually arrested a Placer County man for operating a drone and interfering with firefighting operations during the Trailhead Fire. The drone forced CalFire to ground aircraft rather than risk a collision.
In August, an unauthorized drone interfered with fire personnel battling the Cold Fire, causing helicopters to be grounded.
CaFire has started an “If You Fly, We Can’t!” public awareness campaign.
Tjiska Van Wyk, executive director at Jack London State Historic Park, said that to her knowledge the park has only had one experience with a drone, and that she agrees with the Bay Area District policy.
“It is a disruptive experience for guests who come to experience the historic nature of this landmark and/or the enjoyment of the quite serenity of being in nature,” said Van Wyk.
John Roney, park manager at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, said he’s aware of one situation six months ago where a drone was bothering other campers. Roney said he does see the benefits of drones in the hands of professionals who work with park officials and can get some impressive footage of public lands. He also sees a future where drones will be a very important part of land management practices, providing the ability for mapping and analyzing plant and wildlife inventories.