Confusion persists on usage of drones in Lake Tahoe
Scrolling through the hashtag #TahoeSnaps created by the Tahoe Daily Tribune on Instagram, there are hundreds of aerial shots of Emerald Bay, Sand Harbor and other scenic parts of the lake. To be sure, drone usage is on the rise in the Tahoe Basin, but the regulations for flying these unmanned aircrafts on U.S. Forest Service, Nevada State Park and California State Park lands are murky.
“It’s pretty confusing,” said Brad Scott, a South Lake Tahoe photographer who has been flying drones for seven years now. After years of flying drones as a hobbyist, Scott earned his professional pilot license for unmanned crafts, or Part 107 certification, through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last year.
“I was one of the first to get certified in Tahoe and just in the last year I’ve seen all kinds of people flying drones,” said Scott. “I think a lot of them are people who’ve picked them up from Best Buy or Costco, and they don’t know any of the rules. There should be a pamphlet included in each drone box outlining the rules for flying within the law.”
Prior to flying, any drone over .55 pounds — whether operated by a hobbyist or professional — must be registered with the FAA. While exceptions can be made for certified Part 107 pilots, blanket rules across the U.S. include flying at or below 400 feet, keeping the drone within sight, staying at least 5 miles away from airports, and never flying over groups of people, stadiums, or during emergency response efforts like fires.
In an effort to help new users, Scott has created a Facebook group called Lake Tahoe Drone Pilots to help educate on the regulations in place around the basin. The group has nearly 130 members.
Across the U.S. — and within the multi-jurisdiction Tahoe Basin — regulations vary on where you can fly your drone. And due to the relative newness of the drone craze, enforcement officials are struggling to keep the public informed.
Despite the vast number of aerial shots circulating on social media of Emerald Bay, Matthew Green, chief ranger for the Sierra District of California State Parks, said flying drones is prohibited in all of the “lake sector parks.”
Whether drones are allowed varies from park to park within the state system, but Green said he enforces the no-drone ban in his district under a park code that has existed since the ‘70s and prohibits “activities that may be a danger to persons, resources and wildlife.”
“If you take Emerald Bay just by itself you have osprey and bald eagles, and obviously when the public does come they want to be reassured that a 10-to-40-pound object is not going to endanger them when they are on the beach or on their vessel,” said Green. “Pretty soon we will have signage up saying no drone usage in the park.”
For the time being, rangers are tracking down drone users and informing them of the regulation. Special permits can be attained for flying of drones under certain circumstances, however.
Across the state line in Nevada, drone usage is also prohibited in state parks in Lake Tahoe, though park supervisors do have the authority to make exceptions.
“One park supervisor is looking at the possibility of establishing an area at Sand Harbor and a time of year that it would be OK to fly like in the fall or winter when the activity level is much lower,” said Bob Mergell, deputy administrator for Nevada State Parks. “But as of right now he does not have a season established.”
Though drone flight is strictly prohibited in National Parks, on U.S. Forest Service Land — which makes up roughly 75 percent of the basin — drone usage is allowed under the FAA guidelines, with a few exceptions.
Flying of drones is prohibited in all wilderness areas, including Desolation, Granite Chief and Mount Rose, and in areas that have “Temporary Flight Restrictions,” such as during a wildfire.
“Our biggest concern is drones flying in and around firefighting operations,” said Steve Dunsky, director for Region 5 of the Forest Service. “It causes major problems with aerial operations and can lead to the grounding of our aircrafts.”
Last July a man was arrested for flying a drone over the 5,600-acre Trailhead Fire in Placer and El Dorado County. Firefighting officials said there have been dozens of instances like this that have interfered with emergency efforts in the area over the last few years.
Finding a way to keep the public informed on drone rules and regulations will be even more important going forward, given the latest numbers from an FAA report. Sales are projected to grow from 2.5 million drones in 2016 to 7 million in 2020 — a 180-percent increase.