Can you fly drones at a US national forest without special permits? The answer is yes, if you are doing so recreationally. Flying drones for fun and enjoyment at National Forests is totally okay. You must have a recreational drone pilot certificate though.
This license is known as the Recreational UAS Safety Test or TRUST for short. It is free and it takes less than an hour to obtain the TRUST certificate online.
But, what if you plan on using drone footage for commercial purposes? Sadly, you must obtain a special permit from a local US National Forest office. Moreover, this is in addition to the FAA part 107 commercial drone license.
Learn how to take and successfully pass the FAA Part 107 exam on a budget.
What is Commercial Use?
So, how do I know all these facts? I asked my Colorado National Forest officer. He explained everything to me through email in detail.
Commercial includes scenarios when you use drone videos for sale, profit or advertising. For instance, do you use footage from National Forest land on a monetized YouTube channel? If yes, then this qualifies as commercial use.
Even if you are not monetized at the moment, but will be in the future, this may qualify as commercial use too. But, you do not need the permit if you are recording news or documentary footage without models and props.
General Rules for Flying Drone in US National Forest
Okay, so let’s take a look at the rules for flying drones at US National Forest land.
Rule #1: Max Flight Height
The max height of 400-feet above ground level applies as usual.
Rule #2: National Parks and Wilderness Areas Are Off-Limits
Sometimes, national forests overlap with national parks and wilderness areas. You must take great care not to fly at National Parks and wilderness areas. Furthermore, this is true for both recreational and commercial scenarios.
The National Park Service allows drones with special permits under very narrow scenarios. These include search and rescue, research and fire safety.
Rule #3: Firefighting and Rescue Operations
Next, do not fly close to firefighting and rescue operations.
Rule #4: Observe TFRs
Fourth, know temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) overlying National Forest land. I included a link to the FAA website listing TFRs.
Rule #5: Keep Off Official Aerial Operations
The fifth point is to keep off areas of drone operations conducted by the National Forest.
Rule #6: Know Designated Areas
Also, do not fly above designated primitive areas, campgrounds and trail heads.
Rule #7: Avoid Wildlife
Seven, do not fly above or harass wildlife with your drone.
Rule #8: Drone Launch Near Wildlife
Next, National Forest advises pilots to launch drones at least 330 feet away from wildlife.
Special Use Permit for Commercial Drone Footage
So, if you fly your drone recreationally and obey the above-mentioned rules, you are good to go.
But, what if you plan on using drone footage for commercial purposes? Then, you must apply for a special land use permit. It is called the Commercial Filming and Still Photography Permit. Here is what you need to know.
1. Contact Your Local Forest Service Office
First, you need to get in touch with your local US National Forest field office. This must be done at least 10 days before flying a drone. If your operations involve actors and props, 30 days would be better.
2. Special Use Permit Proposal (Form SF-299)
Next, you need to submit a Special Use Permit Proposal on form SF-299. There, you must state the number of people, vehicles, your storyboard and time schedule.
You also must provide a map of where you will be flying your drone.
3. Pay Administrative Fee
If your drone operations are significant, you may have to pay an administrative fee. They are there to evaluate, process and monitor the special use permit. The National Forest does not mention the fee amount. I would suspect that a one-person drone operation would not involve these fees.
4. Pay Land Rental Use Fee
Next, you must pay Land rental use fee, which varies with the region and the number of people involved. For instance, in Colorado drone operations involving less than 10 people cost $190.
5. Pay Application Processing Fee
Also, you must pay an application processing fee, which is another $130. Again, this fee may vary.
6. Obtain Liability Insurance
Finally, you must submit a written proof of liability insurance. This insurance must list the United States and the Forest Service as additional insured. The insurance must also provide for 30 days written notification of cancellation.
The liability insurance must have certain minimum amounts, which varies with the region. For instance, in the Southern Region, the insurance must have $30,000 property/$300,000 Death or Injury to One Individual/$300,000 Death or Injury to More Than One Individual (30/300/300).
Before flying your drone on US National Forest land, identify the use for your footage. Is it for commercial or recreational purposes? Depending on the answer, you may or may not need a special use permit.