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Editorial: Ground the drones flying over California's parks

The LA Times logo The LA Times 6/10/2021 The Times Editorial Board
a sandy beach next to a body of water: Some 1,500 to 2,000 elegant tern eggs that were recently abandoned on a nesting island at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach. (AP / California Department of Fish and Wildlife ) © (AP / California Department of Fish and Wildlife ) Some 1,500 to 2,000 elegant tern eggs that were recently abandoned on a nesting island at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach. (AP / California Department of Fish and Wildlife )

In case you thought drone crashes in sensitive environmental habitats were a rarity, get this: The drone that fell to ground at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, driving off 3,000 elegant terns from their nests on the sand, was actually the second to do so in 24 hours. The first one scattered a different group of terns and plovers, but they returned. Not so the second time.

They left behind more than 1,500 eggs that will never hatch.

It’s infuriating, isn’t it, the number of people who think they are the exception to the rule, whether it’s forgoing masks during the height of the pandemic or flying drones where they endanger wildlife and disrupt peaceful picnics in the park? Drones aren’t allowed at Bolsa Chica, a successfully restored wetlands in Huntington Beach and a key stop along the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds.

According to the National Audubon Society, elegant terns are considered a vulnerable species because they nest in only a few spots. They first nested in Orange County in 1987 as part of a northward spread, but at the same time, they disappeared from nesting sites in Mexico.

Drones aren’t the only problem confronting the birds of Bolsa Chica. Similar to the infractions seen at other preserves and wilderness parks, bikers wheel through forbidden territory and hikers take their dogs. All have been a threat to the birds and other wildlife of Bolsa Chica, and all are banned there.

Enforcement of rules at parks and other nature spots has always been weak. It’s not easy to cover networks of trails, the parks are understaffed, and the fines that accompany the citations are too low to be a real deterrent.

But at least one part of this will get easier in the future. Starting in 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration will require drones to broadcast identification codes that could be picked up by anyone with a smartphone; the rule will apply to all drones by mid-2023. This means that rangers and other law enforcement will be able to readily find out who owns an offending drone even if that person is operating it from outside the park boundaries. With the right software, private citizens would be able to get the identification number and turn it over to authorities. That would help make up for the shortage of policing at parks and wilderness areas.

That’s not enough, though. The patchwork of rules governing drone flight is confusing to drone hobbyists and the general public. Drones are allowed in state parks except where they aren’t for specific reasons, such as protecting endangered species.

Our national parks and forests ban drones from taking off or landing within their borders; California should do the same in all of its state parks and wildlife areas, and counties should follow suit for the wilderness parks they run. Exceptions could be made for search and rescue operations, environmental and wildlife surveillance and even occasional filmmaking, with permits issued for these.

Why not just bar them from flying over parks? That's the FAA's jurisdiction, and so far it seems to be concerned only with the safety risks posed by drones in the air.

Authorities should make the rules as clear and simple as possible, put up signs telling citizens how to report illegal drone use, and increase the fines for violations — they now tend to be around $125, which has proven not to be enough of a deterrent.

Once word gets around that people can and will be caught and face real consequences, problems should ease up. Sadly, it's too late now for the 1,500-plus eggs lying unhatched on the ground at Bolsa Chica.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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