Some fear the use of drones will diminish the wild character of the Forest Preserve
By Mike Lynch
Standing atop a cliff above the Ausable River in Wilmington, Dave LaMountain carefully steered his drone up and down the river, taking video of water rushing through cascades.
On this spring day, LaMountain was capturing footage of waterfalls in the northeastern Adirondacks for a short video, one of a couple dozen he’s done about the Adirondacks. The footage was for a project that LaMountain is working on to highlight the beauty of the Adirondack Park. He’s pursuing the project as a hobby, although he envisions using drones professionally for scientific purposes or mapping applications. But for now, he just posts the edited footage on his Facebook page, “Just Some
Guy in the ADK,” which has the handle @ADKDroneGuy.
LaMountain said one of his goals is to show how drones can have a positive impact when used responsibly in scenic yet motorized areas of the Adirondack Park, including woods near roads. He said drones shouldn’t be allowed to be used in backcountry Wilderness Areas—where they are currently banned—except when permitted for special circumstances by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. However, he’s concerned about drones being overregulated. He believes regulations that are too strict—such as a ban in Wild Forest Areas—would hurt operators with good intentions. He believes the solution is for DEC to educate the public about where drones are restricted, which he says isn’t clear now because there are so many different land classifications in the Park.
At the moment, DEC doesn’t have any regulations on the books addressing drones. And as of late May, the department hadn’t ticketed anyone for using them on the Forest Preserve. However, DEC is prohibiting people from operating, launching, and landing them in Wilderness, Primitive, and Canoe Areas. Generally, motors are not permitted in such Forest Preserve tracts, and drones are considered motorized equipment.
However, there is a loophole. If a person launched a drone from private land, a road, or Wild Forest Area and flew it over a Wilderness Area or other motor-free tract, the airborne craft would not fall under DEC’s jurisdiction. Rather it would fall under Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Under those rules, anyone flying a drone for commercial purposes would need a license. The FAA requires recreational to heed a set of regulations, including keeping the drone within sight distance and not flying it within five miles of an airport.
The regulations for drone use in the Forest Preserve could change. “DEC is currently in the early stages of determining what kind of public drone use will or will not be allowed on most state lands,” said spokesman Benning Delamater. “The allowable uses and the regulatory mechanism for such use will depend on the land designation.”
Because of their growing popularity, drones have come under scrutiny in recent years. The National Park Service imposed an interim ban on drones in 2014 after they started showing up in the Grand Canyon, Zion, and other parks. Former National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in a memorandum in June 2014 that drones could “cause unacceptable impacts such as harming visitors, interfering with rescue operations, causing excessive noise, impacting viewsheds, and disturbing wildlife.” The ban is still in effect.
In the Adirondack Park, the issue has just started to generate a public discussion. “I think they’ve already got the laws in place to do what they need to do,” LaMountain said. “Operating near a [noisy] road … you hardly notice when a drone goes up. Operating in the deep woods, you’re going to notice, and the sound carries a long way. In the High Peaks Wilderness, I don’t feel like just anybody should be allowed to bring them back there.”
Although LaMountain doesn’t want more laws on the books, he does have serious concerns about drone usage in the future. As drone manufacturers make the devices smaller, lighter, and cheaper, they could become more prevalent. LaMountain noted one type of drone, called Mavic, is less than eight inches long and weighs less than two pounds and can easily be transported deep into the backcountry.
“It folds down into the size of a cellphone, but it still has motors that generate sound above seventy decibels,” he said. “The days where someone has to make a real effort to transport a drone into the backcountry are gone, and the Adirondack Park is about to have a huge wave of people attempting to operate drones in its most remote places. I am very concerned about the major public-relations issue that this wave of people packing their Mavics without a second thought are about to cause me and other entrepreneurs who are looking to conduct respectful commercial operations within the Park.”
One concern about drones in the backcountry is that they are loud and can intrude on a person’s sense of solitude. Some people also consider them an invasion of privacy. Safety is another concern: critics worry that a drone could crash on a crowded summit.
Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan said drones can be a threat to wildlife and startle hikers and others in the woods. “One of the Park’s most alluring attributes is that of refuge from the mechanization and intrusions of the modern world,” he said. “We are concerned about the wild character of the Forest Preserve being affected by drones. This concern extends beyond areas classified as Wilderness or Primitive Areas. Drones have the potential to alter that character, which is guaranteed by the forever-wild clause of the state’s constitution.”
But Sheehan and other critics acknowledge that drones can be useful for scientific research. The Adirondack Nature Conservancy, for instance, flies drones to survey wetlands for invasive-plant infestations. Conservancy spokeswoman Connie Prickett said drones enable scientists to examine remote and rugged territory that would be difficult to access on foot.
“Rather than slogging through several acres of emergent wetland, where tall vegetation can obscure line of sight beyond a few feet and surveying a small area may take a few hours, we can launch our drone from dry land and use its camera to survey several acres in a matter of minutes,” she said.
Drones provide a new tool for photographers and videographers, allowing them to capture dramatic and striking images from the air. Yet even some Adirondack photographers are concerned about the impact of the flying machines.
“I don’t want to take away from another person’s freedom on being able to use a new creative option, but I don’t feel, in particular, the Wilderness and Primitive Areas are the places [for them], because it can impact another person’s enjoyment of what they are considering wilderness,” said Carl Heilman II.
Lake Placid photographer Nancie Battaglia is torn. Even though she thinks drones can be useful, “I also see them as a big invasion of privacy.”
Lisa Godfrey, another professional photographer, said drones can interfere with the wilderness experience. She recently was bothered by a drone while trail running in Wilmington. “I just don’t want to be in the woods and hear its artificial buzz,” she said.