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  Proposal to send drones over Idaho raises hackles

Reuters | January 9, 2007

Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho - A U.S. government agency is considering using unmanned surveillance planes, or drones, to help oversee remote areas of eastern Idaho, raising concerns in a region deeply wary of outside interference.

Officials the Bureau of Land Management office responsible for most of eastern Idaho may initially buy one hand-launched drone for an estimated $15,000 to help keep track of the vast, thinly populated area.

They said the unpiloted aircraft, with a wingspan of about 4 feet, would monitor vegetation and streams in areas used largely for grazing and recreation and there were no immediate plans to use them for law enforcement.

But with Americans already concerned over increased government surveillance under President George W. Bush's war against terrorism, the mere suggestion of a camera-equipped plane over public areas sparked controversy in this intensively independent region.

"It would be like the environmentalists sneaking up on you," said Wayne Butts, a member of the County Commission in Custer County, where 96 percent of the land is publicly owned. "They may be taking pictures of a plant or two, but where does it stop? Do we have to grab our pitchforks and our guns?"

Melodie Baker, whose family has ranched for six generations among the sage flats and alpine canyons near Idaho's East Fork Salmon River, said she is afraid the data collected by the drones "would be used the wrong way."

"Every time the government comes up with something that's supposedly helpful, it ends up causing problems and is detrimental to ranchers," she said.

OVERSEEING GRAZING

Conservationists applauded the idea, saying there should be greater oversight of federal grazing and other leases.

"More supervision to ensure the terms and conditions of permits to use public lands is always a good idea," said Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group that focuses on federally managed lands in California, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

Terrance Booth, a rangeland scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Wyoming, said remote controlled planes already fly above New Mexico and Maryland for similar purposes.

The Bureau of Land Management said it would be some time before the Idaho project got under way and that it would hold public hearings before any drones took to the skies.

"These discussions are very preliminary, but we know these UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are the wave of the future," said Lance Brady, a geographic information systems expert with the bureau.

UAVs have become a critical tool in the U.S. military's operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they are widely used for reconnaissance and intelligence, and for keeping watch on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The model being considered in Idaho could remain airborne for about five hours at a stretch. Officials said unpiloted planes also could prove valuable for assessing wildfires without endangering people.


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