What to know about operating a drone in Washington state parks

Jun 2, 2019, 8:53 AM
A drone with a camera mounted on it. (KIRO 7)
(KIRO 7)

A trip up to Rattlesnake Ledge recently was pretty generic. The trail was crowded. And at the top, that crowd gathered for the view over Iron Horse State Park with miles of trees off into the horizon.

Then it happened. The drone came out.

If you’ve ever experienced a pesky fly buzzing around your head as you try to watch TV, imagine a much larger, noisier fly zipping around a scenic view … at the top of a ledge with a bit more than an 1,100 foot drop. Sure, drones can capture beautiful, intriguing scenes. But that comes at a cost — your patience, and perhaps safety.

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At Rattlesnake Ledge, the drone would dart over the crowd, then out over the ledge, then back. Kids — and adults — were snapping their gaze from side-to-side to locate the flying machine. It was a bit disorienting. And despite the drone being off in the distance it was difficult to tell if it was darting at your head at every turn. Dogs were anxiously freaking out as their hiking companions tried to take photos.

At the very least, many on that ledge were simply annoyed by the disturbance. And most folks — immediately around me, at least — questioned the safety of flying a drone around such a setting.

Park officials have questioned the same thing. Their conclusion: Drones are banned at parks.

Drone rules

Despite being located about 35 miles outside the city of Seattle, the Rattlesnake Lake Recreational area is managed by Seattle Public Utilities. The watershed serves about 65 percent of the region’s water needs.

The Seattle utility has banned drones specifically at Rattlesnake Ledge. A website on the attraction states: “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), such as Quadcopters, drones, and model airplanes are prohibited.”

In fact, drones are banned at all Seattle parks. It’s written into city code. As the city states in a blog post:

City law prohibits drones and other remote-controlled aircraft in parks. Drones have injured people by crashing into them and alarmed people by nearly crashing into them. Drones have annoyed people with their noise, and people have expressed privacy concerns about drone use. Drones have also harmed wildlife, in at least one instance causing an osprey to abandon the eggs in its nest.

Beyond Seattle, Washington State Parks has taken a similar stance. According to Virginia Painter with state parks, you can’t fly a drone unless you obtain a permit beforehand.

“Washington State Parks has a strict requirement that anyone wishing to use drones apply for a permit,” Painter said. “We restrict the use of drones to protect privacy and safety of visitors and also to ensure protection of natural and cultural resources. The issue is not only the drones in flight but the launch point, access, and other potential impacts.”

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Drones generally have to follow certain regulations. Drones cannot fly higher than 400 feet above the ground, and their maximum speed is 100 mph. Drone operators breaking the rules could face fines up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Beyond that, the devices have caused major disruptions to wildfire operations in Washington. Basically, if a drone is in the airspace around a wildfire, planes and helicopters used to fight that fire are grounded until the drone is gone.

So the next time any hikers run into someone operating a drone at Rattlesnake Ledge, or most any Washington park, they have state code behind them when they politely tell the operator to buzz off.

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What to know about operating a drone in Washington state parks