Drone have become more accessible and prevalent amongst hobbyists and hikers. Where do they fit in amongst nature and should they be there?
It was a September afternoon outside the Lonesome Lake Hut. I was enjoying a sun soaked day and the incredible views of the Franconia Ridge, only available by the lake, when I heard a strange noise. It was a low whine, distinctly electronic and obviously foreign. I glanced at my friend standing closer to the lake and looked up. Then I saw the source of the buzzing.
A drone rose from the other side of the lake and swooped down towards us. It was soon accompanied by another. It sounded like a drill or a bee hive and it's safe to say I was not too pleased by the two "pilots".
As of right now Drones are banned in National Parks after a whole slew of problems. A drone pilot caused a stampede of Bighorn Sheep in Zion National Park, a similar situation unfolded at the National Elk Refuge. Drones have also managed to cause security concerns at other major National Parks/Attractions and resulted in them being banned from a number of other attractions, including the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and the Hoover Dam.
But what about our friends in the White Mountains, which is a National Forest, not a National Park, and is managed by the US Forest Service, not the National Park Service. Drone usage is not banned across the whole of the White Mountains, but is forbidden in certain areas, including along the Appalachian Trail and in designated Wilderness Areas, of which there are 6 in the White Mountains. So, our friends whirring around above Lonesome Lake were not supposed to be there, as the Lake is along the Appalachian Trail. There are more stringent regulations on commercial use of drones, but that's a whole another topic.
Drones do allow for incredible visuals that capture the outdoors from a perspective that would be impossible to see, without much more intrusive equipment (helicopters, cranes, film crews, etc.). These visuals can draw people into the outdoors that might have not found them otherwise. For example, Boston Magazine posted an article that got a lot of clicks and shares titled, Watch: Drone Captures Incredible Footage of New Hampshire’s White Mountains that pretty much solely consisted of Drone footage shot by 2 hobbyists and edited together. Similarly, Andrew Drummond has made numerous awe-inspiring videos of the White Mountains using drones, and I would highly suggest checking him out on Youtube & Instgram.
Creating engaging content (like hopefully this blog does...) does serve a purpose of getting people involved. The more people who feel a connection to the area, even if it's just from driving up Cathedral Ledge are potential advocates for it's protection. In this day and age, advocates for protection and communities of people feeling a connection to protected lands is fundamental to keeping it protected. You need to look no further than Bear's Ears to see that. After all, Ansel Adams photos spurred a feeling of need for conservation of areas vast numbers of Americans never experienced, but still felt the need to preserve.
I can see the value of Drones in the outdoors for the content they can create that could potentially bring more people into the outdoors, or at least help them understand the necessity of preserving the White Mountains. However, I can't get over the experiences I have had with drones in the backcountry. They are loud and intrusive. They take a serene and solitary place and make it loud and make people (myself included) feel self-conscious, as if they're being watched (which they are). This is almost the exact opposite of the experience most seek out in the backcountry. It feels like a breach of leave no trace with potential to be even more intrusive if a drone was lost, or crashed in the backcountry. There are also reports of civilian drones impeding rescue operations during the recent California wildfires. Wildfires are not common in the White Mountains, but any interference in a Search and Rescue operation (which there have been several of in the past year) could be the difference between life and death.
Personally, you won't find me flying a drone in the backcountry anytime soon. The footage is incredible, and I'm sure it is plenty of fun, but the impact is simply too much. There should be more restrictions and training on drone flight for hobbyists to be allowed to use them in our beloved National Forest. There is just too much at stake to allow just anyone to fly a drone in the backcountry. It is intrusive to fly a drone in a peaceful environment.
Perhaps a wider permit system could mitigate the impact. That way a limited number of hobbyist, who know what they are doing, can fly on a limited number of days per year. This would limit the number of drones in the backcountry and the potential for loss and adverse environmental impact. As of right now it's a free for all, and I fear it'll take a catastrophe for people to take a closer look at the potential impacts of drones.
I'm interested to hear more opinions on the matter from a variety of Outdoors people. In the meantime enjoy this "EPIC Drone Crash" Compilation.