Why Are Drones Banned in National Parks?

David Lemay12 Jul 2022

One of the most popular drone photography subjects is natural landscapes. Compared to Yellowstone's gorges and Yosemite Valley's breathtaking waterfalls, there are very few places on this planet that can match their beauty. Even national monuments can be seen as a close second due to their historical and cultural value. There is one thing that all of these places have in common: they are all set within National Parks.

America's national parks are among the most picturesque and well-loved in the world, and it's easy to see why.  Numerous reasons exist for visitors to keep coming back year after year to these popular tourist destinations.

One of the motivations would be to get some stunning images of nature in its purest form. Historic, cultural, or natural characteristics are protected in national parks, which are established by the United States government. The aerial images and videos of these locations are truly breathtakingly beautiful.

Thinking of capturing some stunning images and drone footage from Yosemite this weekend?  The allure is natural since there's nothing better than catching nature in its fullest splendour from a high altitude. Sadly, it isn't possible. In 2014, National Parks were designated as "no drone" zones which means flying one in these places would entail serious consequences.

Are Drones Banned in National Forests?

Generally, the use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in National Parks and Wilderness regions overseen by government agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management is forbidden. There are several National Forests and some BLM sites that don't have wilderness designations where drones can be flown legally. State and local laws prohibiting drones might range from one state to another, as well as from one park to another within the same system.

On June 19, 2014, the National Park Service released Policy Memorandum 14-05. With a few exclusions stated on the NPS website, it was given as interim policy. An unmanned aircraft is not allowed to take off or land on any NPS-managed lands or waters, notably National Parks, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, or National Memorials, according to this rule. The ruling clearly indicated that these regions are off-limits to drone flights.

Rules for drone use vary depending on whether you're in a national park, forest, or other wilderness regions.

  • Drones aren't allowed in national parks, no matter where you go.
  • In order to protect national monuments, drones cannot be flown within 400 feet of them.
  • Drones are allowed in National Forests, however, they may require a permit.
  • Drones are not allowed in Wilderness areas.

What Happens if You Fly a Drone in a National Park?

National park visitors who violate the restriction on flying drones will face consequences. In the United States, a violation of the ban is punishable by a fine of up to $5000. To put it another way, you could risk six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Your drone may also be seized in addition to the possible jail time and fines. Park rangers have the ability to enforce the restriction and determine individual cases of infractions.

At least one visitor has already been penalized because of the NPS's strict enforcement of these rules. That should give you proof of how serious this ruling is.  After being discovered by park rangers flying a drone over the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, the tourist had to pay the fine. While we can't say for sure if there are any more citations after then, making news as the second violator is something you definitely don't want to happen.

Is There a Way To Capture Aerial Photos and Footage in National Parks?

It would be a real shame if visitors at National Parks would be unable to take photos and footage of their surroundings because of such stringent regulations. Indeed, there is a way around them. Although not impossible, only in extremely rare cases will you be granted permission to fly your drone over a National Park. The only exception to the National Park Service's ban on drones in national parks is search and rescue, research, and fire safety which all require a Special Use Permit. These permissions appear to be nearly impossible to obtain in practice.

You must meet the following conditions before you can submit an application for a special use permit:

  • Infringe on any of the Federal Aviation Administration's drone-use restrictions.
  • Injure or harm the park's resources.
  • Go against the aim of the park's establishment, or have a detrimental influence on the park's ambience of peace and tranquillity.
  • Intrude with any of the NPS's services or operations within the park in an unreasonable manner.
  • Disturb the park's interpretive visitor services.
  • Pose an obvious threat to public health and safety.
  • Result in severe conflicts with other existing users of the space.

If all of the aforementioned standards are met and the special use permit is obtained, the specified areas in the park that can be used must be clearly defined.

In addition to the usual special use permit, the applicant will need to agree to the following conditions:

  • Wildlife must not be harmed by the drones' presence.
  • Drones must not disrupt any National Park Service activities.
  • There should be no careless flying of the drone and must remain inside the permitted region.
  • The drone operator must not be under the influence of any drugs or alcohol when operating it.
  • Those new to flying a drone should be accompanied by an experienced pilot.
  • Aircraft operated by drones shall not fly directly over or interfere with the activities of people, vehicles or structures.
  • Regardless of how modest the first aid is, all incidents resulting in injury must be reported to the National Park Service immediately.
  • Drones must be within the line of sight of the operator at all times, even when hovering in the air.
  • Operators are required to present proof of liability insurance or membership in an organization with insurance.

Flying a drone in national parks is unquestionably an excellent idea. naturally beautiful landscapes must also be spectacular from above. But unless you want to risk getting fined or imprisoned, you can't just take your drone out to a national park and start taking aerial shots.

Although the ban on flying drones over national parks is a let-down, we need to look at it from the perspective of preserving nature and history. Most of these sites are simply too precious to risk their destruction, all for the sake of a good photo or footage.

David Lemay

David Lemay

I'm David Lemay, a lover of tech and have had an interest in drones for years. Bought my first few drones, before I started building my own. I want to share my passion with others, so I started this site to help others who want to get into the hobby.

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