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Monday, June 30, 2014

Flying drones in New Hampshire backwoods? Make sure you avoid a certain long, skinny place

David Brooks

There’s nothing simple about drones, or at least about regulation of these autonomous flying devices. Case in point: Where can you fly them in New Hampshire’s backwoods?

This question came up last week when the National Parks Service announced that it would no longer allow drones to be flown in national parks, citing annoyance and safety issues amid the natural splendor of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. ...

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There’s nothing simple about drones, or at least about regulation of these autonomous flying devices. Case in point: Where can you fly them in New Hampshire’s backwoods?

This question came up last week when the National Parks Service announced that it would no longer allow drones to be flown in national parks, citing annoyance and safety issues amid the natural splendor of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.

An immediate question raised by outdoor-loving quadracopter fans was: “Does that include the White Mountains?” The answer is no, sort of.

It’s no because the White Mountains isn’t a national park. It’s a national forest.

The difference is more than semantic. National parks are run by the National Park Service, whose job is to keep the areas free of development and available for recreation, whereas national forests are run by the U.S. Forest Service, whose job is to keep the areas available for a bunch of different activities, including logging. That explains those “Land of Many Uses” signs on the highway.

New Hampshire has no national parks. The closest, and only one in the Northeast, is Acadia on the coast of Maine.

So that’s that, right? Well, not really, because the rule also covers all property and land owned and administered by the Parks Services, which includes the gorgeous Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, on the Connecticut River.

Gregory Schwarz, chief of interpretation at the former home of famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gauden, said the no-drone decision wouldn’t change much because visitors haven’t yet thought to use the flying devices to take aerial selfies amid the site’s 175 acres.

“If they have, we haven’t seen it,” Schwarz said.

But there’s one other place in New Hampshire administered by the Park Service: The Appalachian Trail.

In other words, drone flight is forbidden anywhere on a 161-mile-long ribbon of land, sometimes just a few hundred feet wide, that cuts across New Hampshire from Hanover through the White Mountains and enters Maine east of Berlin.

So if you were planning to fly your nifty remote-controlled aircraft between, say, Loon Mountain and Cannon Mountain, think again.

Finding this out made me wonder about the Forest Service’s attitude is toward drones. I called the headquarters of the White Mountains National Forest, where folks had to double-check with the law enforcement arm because it’s not a question that comes up often.

Turns out you can, indeed, fly a drone anywhere in the Whites (except for that A.T. strip) – however, you can’t land or take off a drone in specially designated wilderness areas, said Colleen Mainwill, public information officer for the forest.

The White Mountain National Forest has five wilderness areas, including the Great Gulf, Pemigewasset, Presidential/Dry River and Sandwich Range wildernesses, plus one I’d never heard of: Caribou-Speckled Wilderness, which extends into Maine. They take up a total of 148,000 acres, roughly a fifth of the whole forest.

Wilderness areas have much tighter rules about usage; the 1964 law that established them said they should be “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” which is a lovely phrase even if a bit vague.

That limit includes a long-standing rule forbidding planes from landing or taking off, which I suspect was designed to keep float planes from bringing fishermen into wilderness-area lakes. The forest service has decided that this also applies to drones.

So here’s the rule: you can fly drones in the White Mountains to your heart’s content – you just can’t land them or take off in wilderness areas. And stay away from the A.T.

These limits, incidentally, fall under over-arching rules from the Federal Aviation Administration, which says that no company can operate drones at all. Even non-commercial use should stay below 500 feet above the ground, and away from airports, so it doesn’t commercial air space. The FAA is reworking these regulations, which are likely to change a lot of time.

There are no state laws about drone usage; an attempt to create one this legislative session, largely targeted at privacy and law enforcement, passed the House but died in the state Senate.

All this reflects the truism that regulation always lags technology. Even when you’re deep in the wilderness.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).