If you’ve been dreaming of capturing the majestic Grand Canyon in all its beauty from high up in the sky, sadly you’ll have to keep dreaming. Let’s cut to the chase. It was 2014 when the National Park Service (NPS) announced that it was prohibiting drones from all NPS-controlled lands and waters. That includes 84 million acres in every state and territory: monuments, battlefields, historic sites, biking trails, walking trails, seashores, and rivers. According to Jon Jarvis, NPS director, drones are forbidden in the National Parks as their presence can be disturbing to people and wildlife in the parks.
National forests, on the other hand, are another story. Read on to decide whether you pack your drone up with you or not.
Planning to Fly Drones in National Parks or National Forests?
Flying in national parks means hefty fines and penalties ($5,000 penalty and six months in prison!). And this terrain we’re talking about is so huge; the NPS controls some 417 parks, 23 trails, and 60 rivers. A tourist has already been penalized for flying a drone into Grand Prismatic Spring located in Yellowstone National Park in 2014.
According to Policy Memorandum 14–05 issued by the NPS on June 19, 2014, “Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the boundaries of [insert name of park] is prohibited except as approved in writing by the superintendent.”
NPS defines unmanned aircraft as “a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the device, and the associated operational elements and components that are required for the pilot or system operator in command to operate or control the device (such as cameras, sensors, communication links). This term includes all types of devices that meet this definition (e.g., model airplanes, quadcopters, drones) that are used for any purpose, including recreation or commerce.”
So isn’t there a way around it?
- In order to fly your drone in a national park, you will need a Special Use Permit. This permit can be issued only for uses such as
- search and rescue,
- research, and
- fire safety.
However, it is nearly impossible to procure this permit. And if you are caught flying without your permit, National Park Service rangers have the authority to confiscate your gear. And we’ll repeat the maximum penalty here: six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. It is ironic that while procuring a permit to fly in a National Park is almost impossible, the NPS can themselves fly drones in a national park.
- It may be possible to legally fly into a National Park as long as you do not take off or land on park property. This is because the FAA controls all airspace in the United States. However, this can be tricky, and we still advise against doing it. Most monuments are further than the max range of 7 km (4.3 miles) that most high-end drones have. Taking off outside the park jurisdiction is risky as the National Park may still be able to cite you under several different provisions. Unless an unmanned aircraft pilot obtains special permission through the FAA, use of unmanned aircraft still must remain line of sight.
Fly drones in national forests
Unlike National Parks (which are controlled by the Department of Interior), the National Forests fall under USDA’s (US Department of Agriculture) domain. The following excerpt clarifies USDA’s stance on commercial filming and photography permits: “To further help differentiate between journalism and other activities, the following question should be asked. Is the primary purpose to inform the public, or is it to sell a product at a profit? If the primary purpose is to inform the public, no permit is required and no fee is assessed. I also want to emphasize that commercial photography only requires a permit if the photography takes place at locations where members of the public are not allowed or uses models, sets or props. Commercial photography and landing fees should be primarily viewed as land use fees. If the activity presents no more impact on the land than that of the general public, then it shall be exempt from permit requirements.”
Based on the above excerpt, drones can be flown over national forests if
- the primary purpose is to inform and educate or
- the activity presents no more impact on land than that of the general public
However, the USDA has strict rules about the areas you can and cannot fly over. For instance, you cannot fly in wilderness areas, nor can you fly near campgrounds and trails in order to comply with the “flying over people” rule. And you definitely cannot fly near a wildfire.
Often, drone pilots fail to realize that they are in a national park or prohibited national forest area and end up breaking the law. Always read up on laws before flying to steer clear of slip-ups. Lastly, always talk to enforcement officers with respect. If you want to receive respect, you have to give respect in return.
Fly responsibly and stay safe!