Tue. Mar 5th, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Drones are prohibited at national parks due to safety concerns, including the potential for crashes and damage to the environment.
  • Drones are considered a noise and visual nuisance that disrupts the natural habitats of animals and ruins the experience for visitors.
  • If caught flying a drone without a permit at a national park, you can face jail time and a hefty fine. It’s best to check the rules and use the B4UFLY app.

Drones are a great way to get excellent footage of beautiful places, but they’re off limits at America’s national parks. Why? Let’s look at the reasons in detail.

Why Drones Are Prohibited at National Parks

We’ve hit a point where drones are increasingly affordable for regular people, and there are many excellent drones available today, but they come with more restrictions than other consumer electronics, regardless of your proximity to a national park. You need to register your drone before you can fly one in the first place. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also requires drones to broadcast their ID and their location through a process known as Remote ID.

That’s because making something airborne makes it much more dangerous, and the number of people you could indirectly impact increases significantly. Which is the primary reason why we still don’t have flying cars! Plus, when we’re talking about national parks, our concerns go far beyond how drones impact people.

Drones Are a Noise and Visual Nuisance

National parks are areas of land protected from human settlement and development. They serve as areas of conservation where plants and animals are free to thrive. Such parks are also places that people visit to see said plants and animals in their natural habitats.

Drones are not part of that habitat. The sight of a small vehicle with propellors ruins the environment for the animals that live there and the people who come to visit. The sound of a drone can be disruptive to people and wildlife alike.

There Are Safety Concerns for Visitors, Wildlife, Geography, and Monuments

Like any vehicle, drones can crash. They run the risk of causing accidental injury to park visitors or unintended structural damage. A particularly bad crash also poses the risk of fire, which can spread throughout and beyond park boundaries.

Many parks contain geographic features that have formed over the course of eons. Others contain one-of-a-kind human-made creations. In either case, you don’t want to scar the environment with a malfunctioning drone.

This is not a theoretical concern. Again, according to the National Park Service:

Small drones have crashed in geysers in Yellowstone National Park, attempted to land on the features of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, been lost over the edge of the Grand Canyon, and been stopped from flying in Prohibited Airspace over the Mall in Washington DC.

There’s a Risk of Getting Lost in Inaccessible Places

Drones suffering from power-loss or malfunction aren’t just a safety concern. Sometimes they go down in areas that no one can reach. Your drone may fall in an area where it’s dangerous for you or anyone else to pursue it. Alternatively, the area may be accessible, but to do so requires such a degree of personnel and equipment that the effort comes at great taxpayer expense.

Can You Fly Near a National Park?

The National Park Service will not allow you to launch, land, or operate a drone from a national park without a special use permit. The application for said permit comes with a fee, and approval isn’t guaranteed.

What if you’re close to, but not inside of, park boundaries? Well, the National Park Service only has jurisdiction within national parks. If you’re standing on privately owned land outside the park, you’re allowed to fly there, assuming you have the landholder’s permission. In those circumstances, you’re still required to adhere to line of sight rules.

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

Flying a drone at a national park without a permit is considered a misdemeanor, but the punishment can be rather severe. Someone who breaks the rule risks up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. The legal basis for this is disputed, but it’s ultimately up to park rangers to enforce the prohibition, and they can exercise their own personal discretion.

How to Tell if You’re Near a National Park’s Airspace

For help confirming whether you can legally fly in an area, the Federal Aviation Administration (in partnership with developer Aloft) provides the B4UFLY app on the Apple App Store and Google Play. The FAA also provides a detailed set of resources for drone owners on its own website, Know Before You Fly.

Even though the Federal Administration recommends the B4UFLY app, the maps aren’t guaranteed to be accurate. “The app said this area was safe” may not be accepted as a valid defense if you’re caught flying in an authorized area, so it’s best to double-check with another source if you’re unsure.

Where Can You Read Up on the Law Yourself?

The National Park Service gets the authority to make rules concerning the public use of drones under title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, part 1.5.

The National Park Service director released Policy Memorandum 14-05 in June 2014, which provided specific rules for superintendents on the permitted and prohibited use of drones in National Parks. The rules detailed here come from that document.

Are There Alternatives to National Parks Where You’re Permitted to Fly?

To understand where you can fly, it helps to have a general idea where you can’t.

While there are varying degrees of ambiguity, for the most part, you want to avoid flying around the following locations:

  • Airports
  • Military bases
  • Government buildings
  • Schools
  • Stadiums
  • Near power lines
  • Over large crowds

What areas are left? If you live in a rural area or within a neighborhood, it’s generally safe to fly as long as you aren’t in a prohibited area. Examples include a housing development near military bases and government buildings. These are the same areas retailers are attempting to delivery packages by drone.

Public parks are also a safe place to fly, as long as you follow the FAA’s general rules. If you really want to fly in an area similar to a national park, look into state parks instead. Rules there vary based on which state you’re in, so check the rules for the specific parks near you before visiting.

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By John P.

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