UAS - Drone Guidelines

Visitors can operate Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) – also referred to as drones or an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) - on national forest system lands. However, visitors should be aware of the following before operating a UAS on the Tonto National Forest.

Drones & Wildfire

UAS and wildfires

Drone incursions into airspace around active wildfires are increasing. Dozens of airspace conflicts are reported yearly within the wildland fire community.

  • Just one incident on a wildfire can adversely affect the safety and efficiency of the overall firefighting effort.
  • Individuals who fly UAS without authorization over wildfires may be violating federal, state, and/or local laws, regulations, and ordinances, whether a TFR is in place or not.

Firefighting aircraft - such as air attack aircraft, lead planes, airtankers and helicopters – often fly in smoky, windy, and turbulent conditions. Safety depends on always knowing what other aircraft are operating in the airspace and their location. This is compromised by the presence of unauthorized UAS.

  • Firefighting aircraft frequently fly as low as 150 feet above the ground. This is the same altitude that many hobbyists fly their UAS.

UAS flown over a fire could suspend air operations until the risk of a mid-air collision with a UAS is resolved.

  • When firefighting aircraft are grounded for any reason, fire crews lose access to a valuable resource that can adversely affect the safety and efficiency of the overall firefighting effort.

UAS have limited sense-and-avoid capabilities. Operators typically can only “see” in a single direction in relation to the UAS — the direction the onboard camera is pointed. This can result in a UAS unwittingly flying into the path of a piloted aircraft.

All unauthorized UAS flights over wildfires on National Forest System lands are reported to the FAA and law enforcement agencies. Individuals found to have endangered manned aircraft or people on the ground with a UAS and/or interfered with wildfire suppression may be subject to civil penalties, including fines above $25,000, and potentially criminal prosecution.

Flying guidelines

  • UAS are capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere.
  • UAS are flown within visual line-of-sight of the person operating them.
  • UAS must be flown below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles.
  • UAS are both “motorized equipment” and “mechanical transport systems”. As such they cannot take off from, land in, or be operated from congressionally designated Wilderness Areas.  
  • UAS are not permitted to fly in areas that have “Temporary Flight Restrictions” (TFR) in place.  You can search the FAA website for current TFRs.
  • UAS are not permitted to fly over or near wildlife as this can create stress that may cause significant harm, and even death.
  • UAS are not permitted to pursue, harass, or intentionally disturb animals during breeding, nesting, rearing of young, or other critical life history functions unless legally approved as research or management.
  • Launch the UAS more than 100 meters (328 feet) from wildlife. Do not approach animals or birds vertically with the UAS.
    • Birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and bald eagles also are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act which, among restrictions for causing harm, also prohibits harassment and disturbance of bald and golden eagles.
  • UAS should be flown at least 5 miles from an airport or backcountry airstrip.
  • Avoid flying UAS near populated and noise-sensitive areas, such as campgrounds, trail heads, and visitor centers.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has regulatory authority over all airspace.

  • FAA policy identifies unmanned aircraft as ‘aircraft’ flown by a ‘pilot’ regardless of where the pilot is located.
    • The Forest Service has adopted the same policy.
  • UAS or drones must be registered with the FAA.
    • Register your drone at FAA DroneZone.
    • Registration is valid for three years.
  • Section 336 of Public Law 112-95 defines a model aircraft as an unmanned aircraft that is capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere, flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft, and flown only for hobby or recreational purposes.
  • The FAA and the USDA Forest Service consider all UAS, regardless of size or weight, to be aircraft.
  • All UAS flown on National Forest System lands must comply with FAA and Forest Service laws, regulations, and policies.
  • Do not fly any aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds (total weight, including payload and fuel source).

Applicable Code of Federal Regulations

Several Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) sections apply to flights of UAS by members of the public on National Forest System Lands. These include but are not limited to:

  • 36 CFR section 261.1(3) an act or omission that threatens or endangers a person.
  • 36 CFR Section 261.4 (d) causing public inconvenience, or alarm by making unreasonably loud noise.
  • 36 CFR section 261.18 (a)prohibition against possessing motorized equipment.
  • 36 CFR section 261.8 (a) prohibition against molesting wildlife.
  • 36 CFR section 261.21(b) prohibition against possessing or using a motor or motorized equipment in primitive areas.
  • 36 CFR section 261.10 (d)(1) prohibition against using an implement capable of causing injury or damaging property in or within 150 yards near a residence, building, campsite, developed recreation site or occupied area.
  • 36 CFR section 261.10 (f) placing a vehicle or object in such a manner that it is an impediment or hazard to the safety or convenience of any person.
  • 36 CFR section 261.10 (i) any device that produces noise such as … a motor or engine in such a manner and at such time to unreasonably disturb any person.

Additional information

Forest Service Unmanned Aircraft Systems

NIFC Drones and Wildfire

UAS – Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

Video, “Be a Safe Drone Pilot” – Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)