Drone Use In National Forests

Flying a droneWhether you call it a Drone, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), the following information applies to unmanned motorized equipment and aerial mechanical transport systems--a.k.a. drones--within Coconino National Forest (and most National Forests across the nation).

Tips for Drone Operators on National Forests

Individuals and organizations may fly drones for hobby or recreational purposes in compliance with Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) regulations.  Drones may be flown over and within the Coconino National Forest as long as the drone operator follows certain rules:

  • Keep your drone within your visual line of sight at all times.
  • Do not fly your drone within 5 miles of a towered airport (unless authorization from the Airport Manager is obtained).
  • Drones must be flown below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles.
  • Drones are not permitted to fly in areas that have Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), in place. Operators are responsible for knowing what TFRs are currently in place.
  • Never fly your drone over or in close proximity to any fire operation (wildfire or prescribed burn). It is illegal to do so, and flights over fire operations disrupt aerial firefighting operations, creating hazardous conditions and grounding aerial resources, which means they can't fight the fire any No Drone Zonelonger. Individuals who fly a drone without authorization over wildfires may be violating federal, state, and/or local laws, regulations, and ordinances, whether a TFR is in place or not. All unauthorized drone flights over wildfires on National Forest System lands will be reported to the FAA and law enforcement agencies. Individuals who have been determined to have endangered manned aircraft or people on the ground with a drone and/or interfered with wildfire suppression may be subject to civil penalties, including fines above $25,000, and potentially criminal prosecution. In short--don't do it.
  • The Forest Service regularly flies aircraft at low altitudes to perform natural resource management. It is the drone operator’s responsibility to be aware of these flights and take the steps necessary to avoid them. Contact the local Ranger District Office or the FAA for scheduled flights in the area. 
  • Do not fly over or near wildlife as this can create stress that may cause significant harm, and even death. Intentional disturbance of animals during breeding, nesting, rearing of young, or other critical life history functions is not allowed unless approved as research or management.
  • Launch your drone more than 100 meters (328 feet) from wildlife.  Do not approach animals or birds vertically with your drone.
  • The FAA is the authorizing agency for all U.S. airspace. New regulations regarding UAS (drones) can happen any time, so it's your responsibility to check with the FAA for current specific rules and regulations.
  • Wilderness areas have specific regulations, which are below:

Wilderness Areas

Drones cannot launch from, land in, or be operated from a designated Wilderness Area. This does not mean drones cannot fly over a Wilderness Area, but there are a couple of considerations you should take as a drone operator in that case. Designated Wilderness Areas are places people specifically seek out for the solitude and quiet they provide. Please be respectful and fly high enough (up to 400 feet) to respect the tranquility that should be reserved for Wilderness Areas.

Broadcast Media Drone Use

Firefighters utilize a drone for firefighting operationsWhen accredited media wants to use a drone to cover a story on the Coconino National Forest land, they should contact the Public Affairs Officer.  The PAO will coordinate with the Fire & Aviation Air Resource Manager to make sure Fire Dispatch and District personnel are aware of the request and upcoming use. Any drone use by media to cover a story on a current wildfire will need to be coordinated through the Incident Management Team (IMT) assigned to the wildfire, which has its own public affairs staff and air resource manager. National Forest PAOs can get media representatives connected to the right contacts on IMTs.