Drone use on the White Mountain National Forest

Drones (UAS) in wild places, a topic that excites some people and frustrates others. As part of a photographers toolkit drones bring a pretty spectacular perspective to aerial photography and video with a lot less impact than the use of helicopters or airplanes. The problem is that almost anyone can own and operate a drone, so there’s a lot more of them out there getting used. In particular here in the White Mountains. In an effort to clarify where and how I can fly my drone for work in the local national forest I dug into the .fs.fed web world. A deep, dark, cryptic and often confusing place.

First off in drone world there are two types of users, commercial and hobbyist/recreational. The USFS (https://gacc.nifc.gov/nrcc/dispatch/aviation/USFS_UAS_Desk_Guide.pdf) and most other governmental agencies define recreational user as:

“Recreational or hobby UAS use is flying for enjoyment and not for work, business purposes,
or for compensation or hire. A special use authorization is not required for noncommercial
recreational activities or noncommercial activities involving expression of views (36 CFR
251.50). Members of the public may fly UAS for hobby or recreation in many places on NFS
lands. However, there are areas on NFS lands where UAS can’t be flown as mandated by
Federal law and in accordance with FAA guidelines. By law, the areas where UAS can’t be
operated from include wilderness areas and areas with temporary flight restrictions (TFRs)
in place, such as wildfires.”

I squarely fall into the commercial category of drone pilot. Which in the eyes of the WMNF means I am required to file for a filming permit through the district headquarters in Campton, NH. As a commercial pilot I am also required to have a UAS pilot license from the FAA. (more info here: https://www.faa.gov/uas/faqs/#fwb ) In accordance with the FAA regulations all drones (UAS) must be registered before flying both commercial and hobbyists. All users must also follow FAA guidelines regarding flight rules. I won’t go into those here but you can dig into them here (https://www.faa.gov/uas/)

Within the national forest there are designated wilderness areas. If a pilot is following the FAA regulations it is impossible to fly a drone in those areas. A drone cannot take off or land within the boundaries. All air traffic must me above 2000 feet but drone are limited to 400 feet above ground level so this math makes it impossible to fly legally. Here’s a designated wilderness area map ( https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3802938.pdf )

Lastly, we should all be operating with some common sense and be aware of the variety of visitors that enjoy the White Mountain National Forest. I agree that the noise of a drone can ruin an outdoor experience, I also feel that we can be tolerant of some fleeting noises. A bit of common courtesy can go a long way for both the pilot and the by-stander, or maybe pick a time and place with no traffic, for example Diana’s Baths on an early morning in spring here

Aerial photograph of Tuckerman Ravine in winter taken by a drone.
Aerial view of Tuckerman Ravine in winter.

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