If you have been to the Yellow Stone national park or the Grand Teton, you might have seen a sign for ‘no drone zone,’ which essentially prohibits the visitors from flying any kind of remotely controlled aircraft in the national park area.
So, are drones allowed in national parks? No. You cannot fly a drone inside any national park. The ban has been imposed by National Park Service (NPS) under 36 CFR § 1.5 since 2014 and still in place as of January 2021 and applies to both commercial and recreational flyers.
As we have seen with many new technologies, if we don’t understand them or can’t regulate them, we ban them. That has been our ‘go to’ plan on many occasions.
In the mid-2000, when drones become easily and cheaply available to the general public, more and more people started flying them around (some rather recklessly, to be honest). The sheer idea of a noisy and intrusive flying machine with an attached camera was unacceptable for many people.
With time, more and more people started flying drones in public places, including national parks and conservation areas. This was not only disturbing for the visitors, but it had the potential to disturb the natural habitat around. The authorities couldn’t do anything about it because there was no active law that prohibited the use of drones in public places.
The FAA is the controlling agency of the airspace inside the US but its laws were not accommodating for remotely piloted aircraft. A few incidents happened that put the spotlight on the lack of regulations concerning drones.
- In September 2013, someone flew a drone over the iconic Mount Rushmore and nearly landed on Lincoln’s head potentially endangering not only the iconic sculpture but the visitors as well [source]
- In April 2014, two tourists lost control of a drone over the grand canyon and crashed it into the canyon. They had to go off the trail to retrieve the device potentially endangering their own lives as well as those of the visitors. [source]
- Again in 2014, a tourist crashed a camera drone in Yellowstone National Park hot spring potentially damaging the geothermal reservoir [source]
These unregulated incidents acted as seed for across the board ban on flying drones inside any national park.
After a few park managements issued individual bans on drones inside their respective areas, the National Park Service – NPS issued a blanket ban on flights of all unmanned aircraft inside any national park till further notice through a policy memorandum.
Why drones are not allowed in national parks?
The question is, why are drones not allowed in national parks if they are allowed everywhere else, even in populated areas? Well, the actual reason is known to NPS officials only. Still, it is clear that, like any government organization, they are way behind in legislation to regulate the use of drones inside national parks.
Technology has always evolved at a greater speed than political and organizational growth. We see this in almost all new areas. When something new comes out, we first ban it, then take our time to regulate it (recent example: ban on Bitcoin in many underdeveloped countries because they don’t know what it is yet).
The reasons cited by NPS for the blanket ban are two-fold.
- The use of drones inside any national park significantly disturbs the wildlife and environment, especially during nesting and breeding seasons. The basis for this ‘assumption’ is an incident in Zion National Park where a drone temporarily separated a herd of sheep while flying over.
- Drones can be noisy and can create a negative experience for people who visit the park to get away from modern-day cities and enjoy the wilderness without any distraction.
Both the above points are reasonable, but the actual reason behind them seems to be the lack of regulations concerning drones inside NPS-controlled national parks, and they needed time to come up with a set of rules for drone flyers. While they do so, NO DRONES till further notice.
As far as noise is concerned, much louder ORVs (Off-Road Vehicles) are allowed inside the Park area. They also pose a threat to soil pollution via leakages, but they are still permitted. A high flying drone in the air is a lot quieter than a roaring engine powered vehicle on the ground.
Penalties for flying drone in national parks
If you are caught flying your drone inside any National Park area without a valid permit or permission from the park superintendent, you might face up to six months in jail and/or up-to $5000 in fines.
To be honest, a pretty photo or video from the air is not worth the trouble, so I would advise staying away from any flying activity in or around the National Parks area till the ban is lifted. Just enjoy the natural scenery and use your handheld camera to save the memories of your trip.
National Park drone permit
Although the blanket ban completely prohibits any type of flying activity inside the National Park area for both commercial and recreational purposes, there are instances where special use permit might be granted.
This NPS article suggests checking the respective park’s website to see if recreational flying is allowed or talk to the park administrator to see if they can allocate an area where you can fly the drone. While the ban on drone flight seems to cover all scenarios, you might still have a chance to enjoy the activity. Check this language from the memorandum that bans drone flights;
Just ask the park admin before you give up hope.
The park administration themselves use drones for various purposes including search and rescue, aerial photography, surveys, and other studies.
Flying drones in National Forests
Unlike the not-so-cool guys at National Park Service, the US Forest Service guys are very drone-friendly. The UFS manages all the forests and wilderness areas that come under the federal government.
You can fly a remote-controlled drone inside the area of the national forests. You will have to follow all FAA guidelines for recreational flying including remaining below 400 feet at all times, keeping your drone in line of sight, keeping away from wildlife, and away from any rescue or firefighting operation. A comprehensive list of guidelines can be found at this link from the US. Forest Service website.
Flying drones in wilderness areas
Wilderness areas are a group of 803 protected areas under the National Wilderness Preservation System. They are a little different than National Parks and Forests areas in terms of management and allowed activities. For example, you cannot hunt in national parks, but regulated hunting is allowed in Wilderness areas.
Flying drones in Wilderness area is prohibited under the Wilderness Act of 1964 which among other things say;
“shall be no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment…no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport…”.Wilderness Act 1964
Currently, the drones are classified as “motorized vehicles” which effectively ban their use in the congressionally designated wilderness areas.
You can find an interactive map of all designated wilderness areas HERE.
Can you fly drones in state parks?
Ok, so if drones are not allowed in federally managed National parks and wilderness areas, what about flying drones in state parks? State parks, city parks, and country parks have their own rules for drone flights and vary from one place to another.
To be sure you are not breaking any rules, confirm from the respective state, city, or county park if drone activities are allowed or not.
Summary – are drones allowed in national parks?
Let’s summarize all we discussed above in a tabulated form for quick review.
|National Park Service (NPS)
|US Forests Service
|Designated Wilderness Areas
|US Forests Service
|State, City & County Parks
|Varies from park to park
Make sure you follow the rules for each area un till they are updated for good. Till then, happy and safe flying 🙂