Drone on the range: a Colorado town goes hunting for unmanned aircraft


by Greg Campbell

DEER TRAIL, Colo. — The Smart car comes as a surprise — it’s hard to imagine this tiny, eco-friendly two-seater being the transport vehicle of choice for going to war with the government, loaded with rockets, igniters, rifles and ammo. But here it is, providing a dash of absurdity to the Cormac McCarthy landscape of horses, cacti and prairie dog holes here on the outskirts of this small town, where we’ve come to practice shooting down government drones. Phil Steel, a boyish-looking 49-year-old welding inspector, is rummaging in the car’s minuscule storage area. He assures me the Smart has more to it than meets the eye.

“We can make this work for your average right-winger,” he says, popping open a hidden storage compartment on the rear hatch, just big enough to hold “your NFA short-barrel (rifle) or your Uzi.”

The little car holds three firearms today, in addition to a box with 48 small model rockets that will serve as targets. Steel is proudest of what he calls “the drone killer” — a Stoeger over-and-under double-barreled shotgun with a red and green dot scope, mounted with a flashlight, a laser sight and a 3-inch bayonet.

There are also two boxes full of Drone Hunter T-shirts and a box full of delicate sheets of vellum, each of which proclaim to be “A License to Hunt and Kill Drones Operating Within the Sovereign Airspace of the Town of Deer Trail, Colorado.” The small print says the licenses “may not be recognized by tyrannical municipal, state, or federal governments.”

There is a sufficient supply of T-shirts, ammunition and rockets to entertain a few dozen wannabe drone hunters for most of the day, but the only official shooters are Steel and Bob Copley, who owns the land we’re on and doesn’t use earplugs because he’s mostly deaf. The “drone hunt” is a publicity stunt for a proposal that hardly needs any additional PR: Media around the world have covered Steel’s plan to allow the people of Deer Trail to defend its airspace by issuing licenses to shoot down drones. Besides Steel and Copley, the rest of us are reporters and photographers. Most of us journalists take a turn trying to blast rockets — stand-ins for the drones our licenses allow us to defend against — out of the cornflower sky with varying degrees of success.

The rockets are launched on a plume of white corkscrewing smoke with a push-button remote control. At about 800 feet, there is a low pop as the rocket separates and releases an orange streamer as it flutters back to earth, the shooters on the ground blasting away. The TV people who showed up later reported on that evening’s newscast that the rockets were “designed to fly erratically to simulate drone activity,” whatever that means, but the exercise was hardly that well thought out. We were just a bunch of grown men firing shotguns at toy rockets meant to be used by Cub Scouts, the sort of aimless fun that bored people invent to pass the time out here on the high plains.

But Steel never lets us forget that the purpose of the outing is, in his mind, deadly serious.

“This is sedition,” he explains, gesturing to the shells and rockets strewn around the cacti. “It’s armed resistance to the federal government.”

No one argues with him, but it’s a bit of a stretch. There are no government drones buzzing in Deer Trail, population 548, at least not that we can see or hit with our shotguns. None are expected in the future. For Steel, that’s beside the point. In July, he presented the Deer Trail Board of Trustees with a citizen’s initiative calling for a special election to vote on an ordinance that would allow the town to sell drone-hunting licenses. The idea for the ordinance, Steel says, came in the wake of the Edward Snowden saga and its revelations about widespread domestic spying by the National Security Agency, but also because the Federal Aviation Administration is currently drafting guidelines for opening all of the navigable U.S. airspace to commercial drone flights. What’s important for Steel and his supporters is to make a stand, to send a message that, in this tiny little corner of America at least, the citizens aren’t going to tolerate a surveillance state in which cops, corporations and private individuals can fly unmanned vehicles over your yard and across your property gathering data.

But there’s another motivation that’s equally American: to make a buck. If you want to defend liberty in Deer Trail by monitoring the skies with your shotgun by your side, it will cost $25 for the license to blow a drone down to the cold, hard earth. That’s in part why some residents have embraced the idea even if they think Steel is “a little out there,” as one of his supporters puts it. Deer Trail’s annual budget is a mere $118,000, just enough “to pay the two employees, pay the bills, and that’s it,” in the words of one town trustee. As of September, when Kim Oldfield, the town clerk, stopped counting the checks that had prematurely started coming in from around world in response to Steel’s proposal, they totaled $19,000. As she sees it, the cash alone is reason enough to support Steel’s idea.

Not everyone agrees, of course. The proposal has deeply divided the town, with opponents calling it an embarrassment. Some have politicized the proposal in an attempt to seize control of the board when several trustees who support it come up for re-election in April. One resident filed a lawsuit to block a vote. The town has already had to postpone the drone-ordinance vote twice, most recently one scheduled for Dec. 10, while the suit drags through the courts.

Steel, meanwhile, has decided that he doesn’t need anyone’s approval to start selling drone-hunting licenses and merchandise publicizing them. He says he’s already sold about 400 at $25 a pop. If voters adopt his ordinance, he’ll contract with the town to split the revenue — Deer Trail would get $15 and he’d get $10 from each sale. Or voters will reject the ordinance and he’ll keep everything. He doesn’t care either way.

“I’m giving them their opportunity to have their bite at the apple,” he said of the residents of Deer Trail. “(I’m) still going to sell drone hunting licenses, and they’re still going to be Deer Trail drone hunting licenses. And if the people of Deer Trail don’t like it, I told them, ‘So sue me.'”

That he’s already selling licenses is a sore point for many, who say Phil’s true motivation isn’t freedom and privacy, but benefiting financially from all the attention, mostly unwanted, that he has brought to the town.

“It’s real clear to everybody that (Steel is) making money,” says former trustee Gary Lavoie, who opposes the ordinance. “That’s fine to make money, but don’t use the town to do it.”

Sedition, anyone?

It’s fair to say that most people would never have heard of Deer Trail if it weren’t for Steel’s proposal. Until now, the town was known only for having hosted the world’s first rodeo, on July 4, 1869, an annual event that continues to this day. For one week each August, the town comes alive with parades, bucking broncos and rodeo clowns out at the arena facing Interstate 70. Otherwise, Deer Trail is pretty much a snooze.

In its heyday, before the Great Depression, this place was a booming pioneer town, with two banks, a choice of hotels, some doctors’ offices and a barbershop. Business was fed by train tracks first laid by the Kansas Pacific Railroad, which built a station in 1870 that provided a steady stream of visitors and merchandise.

The deathblow came in 1965, though, when the East Bijou Creek flooded and wiped out nearly every business in town. Very few have been rebuilt or replaced. There are no hotels and no banks. Whether the local saloon is open depends on whether anyone has decided lately to try to make a buck off of running it. The most vibrant businesses are the pair of gas stations flanking the ramps on and off of I-70. During the weekdays, when everyone has gone to work in Denver or in the surrounding fields of corn, wheat and hay, you can hear a pin drop, so long as you drop the pin on one of the few streets that have been paved.

It’s not the sort of place that seems capable of mustering much conflict over anything, in other words. But it doesn’t take a visitor long to learn that Steel is a lightning rod for controversy. Even some of his friends acknowledge that he can be a troublemaker. The last time the media paid this much attention to Deer Trail was when, in 2010, the Arapahoe County SWAT team blew the doorsoff his house during a raid. Steel was suspected of trying to poison his boss by filling the mouthpiece of his phone with liquid mercury, which can be deadly if inhaled. Steel calls the allegation “insane,” but even though he was never arrested and charges were never filed, more than a few people in Deer Trail consider him to be dangerously unhinged.

That’s especially so these days, thanks to the six-page ordinance Steel wrote at his computer one night. Prospective hunters need only be at least 18 years old and speak English. The rules of engagement require that hunters use only shotguns firing specific low-velocity ammunition to reduce the chances of collateral damage. Drones are fair game if they descend below 1,000 feet, at which point they are considered to be trespassing into Deer Trail’s “sovereign airspace.” Licensees can only fire from private property and are only allowed three shots in two hours during an “engagement” with a drone. Needing to fire more often “demonstrates a lack of proficiency with the weapon,” according to the proposed ordinance.

Should anyone actually shoot down a drone, the town would pay bounties of $25 per wing or $100 for a fuselage. With licenses costing $25 each (and the pool of licensees not limited to residents of Deer Trail, but open to the entire English-speaking adult population of the world), there would be plenty of money to draw from in the very off chance that anyone attempted to collect a bounty.

The Fourth Amendment

Currently, anyone wishing to fly a drone over 400 feet  — whether it’s a sheriff’s deputy using unmanned aircraft for search and rescue or storm chasers with the University of Colorado’s drone research and development program in Boulder — must apply for special approval from the FAA. It’s a lengthy process that can take months, and operators are restricted to flying only in specific areas during certain hours. The new FAA rules are expected to do away with many of the current restrictions and make it easier for drones to fly almost anywhere. In May, Colorado’s congressional delegation volunteered the state as a drone test-flight area, citing its high number of aerospace companies that are already in the drone business.

Drones, of course, are controversial in places well beyond Deer Trail. They can carry cameras and listening devices. They can peer down from thousands of feet in the sky and follow your movements. Their use in warfare is well documented and their more alarmist critics fear that it’s only a matter of time before weaponized drones are used by local law enforcement to end a standoff or to apprehend an armed fugitive. Of equal concern — not just to Steel, but also to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office and many members of Congress, to name but a few — is what the rapidly expanding technology could mean for the right to privacy and protections against unwarranted search and seizure guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment.

“(T)he sheer sophistication of drone technology and the sensors they can carry may remove drones from (the) traditional Fourth Amendment framework,” wrote the Congressional Research Service in a report to Congress in April. The same report detailed Lockheed Martin’s aptly named Stalker drone, whose batteries can be recharged in flight through the use of a laser, effectively giving it 48 hours or more of flight time.

“Unlike a stationary license plate tracker or video camera, drones can lock on a target’s every move for days, and possibly weeks and months,” the report says. “This ability to closely monitor an individual’s movements with pinpoint accuracy may raise more significant constitutional concerns than some other types of surveillance technology.”

For people like Steel, the solution isn’t to wait for Congress to pass a new drone privacy law (several have been proposed) or for the Supreme Court to weigh in. The solution is a loaded shotgun.

“I don’t want a surveillance society and I will fight against it,” he says. “Obama has declared war on the American people and I’m just firing the next volley in the war.”

If that’s the case, it might be a while before there’s anything to shoot at. No one has ever seen a drone on Deer Trail’s horizons. Even if drones filled the sky like bats, professional shooters say it would be next to impossible to knock one down with the birdshot dictated by the ordinance.

The proposal also overlooks that not all drones are intended for spying. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, recently said his company would like to experiment with having drones deliver packages to customers’ doorsteps, a plan that will not work very well in Deer Trail if it adopts the hunting ordinance. Farmers and ranchers may also be interested in using them to pinpoint irrigation to their fields, dust the crops or find lost livestock.

And of course there’s the unavoidable fact that shooting at drones is illegal, which the FAA happily reminded the people of Deer Trail of in the form of a sternly worded press release once this proposal started receiving attention from the media. That might not matter much if you’re going to war with the government, but it matters a great deal to the average Deer Trail resident who might consider the plan a bit rash. And more than a few are worried about the message such a law would send — not to the government, necessarily, but to the lunatic fringe.

“There’s a difference between trying to make a statement and looking like an intelligent person while doing it,” said a man who preferred not to be identified while we chatted about the proposal over beers at the Brown Derby, the town’s only watering hole.

“My fear is someone weirder than Phil coming in here and camping out.”

‘Weirder than Phil’

“Weirder than Phil” becomes a concern when you consider the way in which Phil Steel proposed the ordinance in the first place. During the trustees meeting in July, which was covered by a half a dozen Denver television stations, the town clerk cued up the theme to the classic Clint Eastwood western “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.” Steel strode into the tiny town hall in a black duster and matching cowboy hat, carrying a Nerf gun, to present the proposal. The stunt turned Deer Trail into a laughingstock overnight and the footage — with the disclaimer “Seriously, this is the actual footage” — was used to withering, humiliating effect on a recent episode of “The Colbert Report.”

But the people of Deer Trail are not laughing. Phil’s antics, the derisive media attention and the fact that the board deadlocked in a 3-3 tie — meaning that the voters will decide the drone-hunting ordinance’s fate — opened a score of old wounds among various factions in the town, some of which go back decades.

“Unfortunately, people who have other issues against members of the town board or supporters of the drone ordinance have taken this up as a cause,” says trustee David Boyd, who voted to adopt the drone proposal. “People who are from Deer Trail have literally decades-old grievances with certain other families or members of the board, (and) have taken this up and rallied people to their cause.”

The squabbles may seem as ridiculous as the drone ordinance itself, but in a small town without many distractions, minor slights and petty disagreements tend to take on disproportionate significance. In the long run-up to the election — which is still unscheduled — Deer Trail has descended into an acrimonious abyss that pits a powerful bloc of old-timer conservatives who want to button up the town with curfews, nuisance ordinances and weed regulations against what Boyd described as the “live and let live” contingent who, generally speaking, support the drone ordinance as a harmless moneymaker. The owner of the pizzeria doesn’t want to offer an opinion about it because “people get ticked off” no matter what side you’re on. More than one person used the word “hatred” in describing the level of animosity between the two sides, and it became clear over the course of several visits recently that no matter what happens with the drone ordinance at a future special election, more attention is focused on the regularly scheduled election in April. That’s when most of those who voted in favor of Steel’s proposal are up for re-election.

“Oh, they’re going to get kicked off,” says Bobbie Bell, a septuagenarian beautician and part-time reporter for the town’s local newsletter. “They’re gone.”

Drones, for all their absence over Deer Trail, are now the catalyst for a full-blown small-town power struggle. Mayor Frank Fields — who is such an ardent supporter of the drone-hunting ordinance that he erected a handmade billboard on his property, visible to motorists passing on I-70, that reads “No Drone Zone” — finds himself targeted by the old-timers. Conventional wisdom in Deer Trail is that former mayor Jim “Pickle” Johnson, who declined to be interviewed, is seizing on the outrage over the drone ordinance to orchestrate a political takeover. Johnson was the victim of a Phil Steel–led coup d’état in 2008. Fed up with what he called a “tyrant” of a mayor, Steel circulated a petition to see Johnson recalled, but Johnson resigned rather than go through with the special election. Fields, as the existing board member with the next highest votes for office, ascended to the mayorship.

The longer the issue simmers without a vote, and the more time people have to grow tired of the unwanted attention it’s brought to the town through things like the drone shooting event at Bob Copley’s ranch, the more it benefits those who want to scrub the board of Phil Steel supporters. And even though she says “I’m ready to put a gun in my mouth” because the ongoing election delay will draw out the petty quarrels into the foreseeable future, Kim Oldfield, the town clerk, sees some silver lining because of the drone ordinance: It’s made people think about privacy and their rights in the age of flying machines.

“I think it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes and (they’ve) seen what’s going on for the first time,” she says. “It seems like the entire rest of the world gets this.”

‘Like NATO’

That’s what Steel is banking on. While the rest of Deer Trail draws battle lines, he’s already looking to new horizons, vote or no vote.

“If they pass on that because of internal feuding and avarice or whatever, that’s fine,” he says. “There are dozens of towns in rural Colorado and across America that would jump at this opportunity. If they see the town turn it down, they’ll say, ‘Ah, those fools.’ They’re going to take the ball and run with it.”

He’s particularly interested in bringing his proposal to a small town in Mesa County, on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies, where the sheriff’s office was one of just five law enforcement agencies to use drones when it began its unmanned aircraft program in 2009. It now has two drones, used for everything from search and rescue to looking for suspects.

“The ordinance is about a very serious issue,” Steel says. “I have had people in town tell me they’re all for surveillance; they figure that you must be doing something wrong if you have a problem with the government watching you constantly. Well, I just can’t understand that mind-set.”

If he can get a few towns to adopt his drone-hunting idea — for which he’ll provide the licenses and the merchandising — he’ll hatch the next phase of his plan: Mutual defense pacts.

“Like NATO,” he says.