The United States is home to 154 national forests, all of them green and beautiful. You’re interested in flying a drone in a national forest near you, or perhaps you’re traveling, and a national forest is on your must-see list.
In these scenarios and more, are drones allowed in national forests?
Recreational pilots can fly drones in a national forest but only in areas without Temporary Flight Restrictions. Wilderness Areas must also be avoided. If you ever do fly in these areas, you’d need U.S. Forest Service approval.
When operating your drone, follow FAA guidelines.
This article will help you differentiate between national forests and regular forests and explain the flight rules in national forests in more detail.
We’ll also provide flight tips so your drone can avoid disturbing wildlife and human passersby!
What is a national forest?
Let’s get underway with a definition. How do you know when you’re flying in a regular forest versus a national forest?
The United States designates national forests as federally-protected lands overseen by the United States Forest Service through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The 154 national forests, in addition to the 20 national protected grasslands, comprise 193 million acres of the country. That’s 8.5 percent of the US’s total land area.
To help you further put it into perspective, the amount of land that all the national forests and grasslands cover is roughly the same size as the state of Texas!
How do you tell a national forest or park apart from a regular forest or park? That’s simple – the name!
Like a state park is going to have those words in the title, the same is true of national forests.
For example, there’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Ocala National Forest, Sabine National Forest, and the list goes on and on.
Can I fly a drone in a national forest?
Here comes the big question – are drone pilots allowed in national forests with their UAVs?
The answer is yes but with some caveats.
This information is courtesy of the Forest Service Unmanned Aircraft Systems Use Policy, which is available on the USDA’s website.
The policy in full reads “Individuals and organizations that fly UAS for hobby or recreational purposes may not operate them in areas of National Forest System lands that have Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) in place, such as wildfires, without prior approval from the U.S. Forest Service.”
Let’s break that down a little bit.
Hobbyists can indeed fly their drones in a national forest per the USDA, but not in areas of a national forest that might be subject to Temporary Flight Restrictions.
Although the USDA lists wildfires as one example of a TDR, there can be all sorts of other instances in which a TDR can be placed in parts or even the entirety of a national forest.
In those situations, then you’re not allowed to fly until the restrictions are lifted for however long that may take.
Almost all rules have exceptions, and that’s the case for this as well. The Forest Service Unmanned Aircraft Systems Use Policy states that if a pilot has permission from the U.S. Forest Service that they can fly a drone even when a TFR is in place.
The USDA does not go into further detail on how to obtain this approval. You’d likely have to contact a representative at the U.S. Forest Service, explain your situation, and request access to fly.
Whether that access would be granted is at the sole discretion of the U.S. Forest Service and the representative you’re in contact with.
Wilderness Areas on National Forest System lands bar UAVs from taking off and landing.
What about commercial pilots? Can they fly in a national forest?
Well, they’re not mentioned specifically in the Forest Service Unmanned Aircraft Systems Use Policy, so it’s unclear if they’re granted the same permissions as recreational pilots.
Keep in mind that the USDA and the US Forest Service are both federal agencies, so these laws are federal laws that supersede state and local laws about national forest flights.
Rules and tips for flying a drone in a national forest
Both the USDA and the FAA have rules and restrictions in place for pilots operating a drone in a designated national forest. Let’s go over these rules and provide some tips as well so you can fly safely!
Follow FAA guidelines
Remember, the USDA is a federal entity much like the FAA. The two organizations paired together to put together the guidelines and flight rules for hobby pilots in national forests, so you’re always subject to FAA rules when flying.
That requires you to have your TRUST certificate on your person. If you don’t yet have a TRUST certificate, then you’ll have to sign up and take The Recreational UAS Safety Test or TRUST exam.
The exam is free to take with under 50 questions, and all those questions are multiple-choice. The test is online as well.
Once you complete the test and your TRUST certificate is mailed to you, it never expires.
TRUST is a collaboration between the FAA and industry to provide TRUST and educational safety material to Recreational Flyers.
Fly under 400 feet
To avoid obstacles, you’re required to always pilot your drone at an altitude of no higher than 400 feet. Even at that level, you must still do your best to avoid obstacles.
Always keep your drone in your sight
At all times when operating your drone, it must be in your visual line of sight. If you need the refresher, your visual line of sight is how far you can naturally see.
While wearing glasses or contacts to discern your visual line of sight is acceptable per the FAA, using binoculars is not.
The rules notwithstanding, you shouldn’t want your drone to get too far away from you. If it does, you might not be able to return it to home.
Be respectful of others’ privacy
National park campers are entitled to their privacy, which you should not invade with your physical presence or your drone.
The USDA states that you have to steer clear of “populated and noise-sensitive areas,” including visitor centers, trailheads, and campgrounds.
Stay within five miles of an airstrip or airport
If the national park you’re soaring through has a backcountry airstrip and/or an airport, then you’re permitted to fly no closer than five miles from these areas.
Avoid designated Primitive and Wilderness Areas
Primitive and Wilderness Areas receive those designations by the US Congress and will be clearly marked.
These areas are not only places of solitude for humans but for animals as well. Keep your drone out.
Do not launch near wildlife
The USDA states that pilots launching a drone in a national forest should do so at least 328 feet from any nearby wildlife.
As your drone ascends, keep it away from both birds and animals.
Birds in national forests are safeguarded under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Bald eagles have a separate protection through the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Both acts outlaw disturbing and harassing birds or causing them harm in any way.
Don’t fly too close to wildlife
When you see wildlife when flying your drone in a national forest, just keep on flying. Lingering around the wildlife or flying over the wildlife is prohibited.
As the USDA says, your drone “can create stress that may cause significant harm and even death.”
You’re also not allowed to intentionally bother animals when rearing their young, nesting, breeding, or during “other critical life history functions” without prior permission.
Watch your drone weight
Any drone weighing more than 55 pounds, with the fuel source and payload included, is not allowed to fly in a national forest.
The United States is full of lush national forests. There are enough of these forests and national grasslands that the equivalent land size is about as large as Texas.
Hobbyist drones are permitted flight access in national forests if Temporary Flight Restrictions are not in place and if they aren’t flying over designated Wilderness Areas.
This flight access comes with great responsibility. Not only do you have to follow the FAA’s guidelines, but the USDA’s as well. By limiting your drone contact with people and wildlife, you should be in the clear!