National Park Service Moves To Ban Public's Use Of Drones In The Parks

Voicing concerns for park visitors and wildlife, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis announced Friday that the agency was moving to ban the public use of drones in the National Park System. The move comes in the wake of actions by officials at Zion, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon national parks, at least, to prohibit the use of drones.

In April, a drone at Grand Canyon buzzed around more than three dozen visitors gathered to watch a sunset near Desert View Watchtower. "The operator lost control of the unmanned aircraft, which had been loudly flying back and forth over the canyon, and the device crashed into the canyon," Park Service records note.

In May, officials at Yosemite warned visitors that flying drones in the park was illegal, and a few days later Zion officials said someone had been buzzing bighorn sheep with a drone. Last fall, according to the Park Service, a drone was confiscated at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota after it flew above a crowd of more than 1,000 and in front of the sculpted profiles of presidents Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.

"We embrace many activities in national parks because they enhance visitor experiences with the iconic natural, historic and cultural landscapes in our care,” Director Jarvis said in a release. “However, we have serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks, so we are prohibiting their use until we can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience.”

In a memorandum to superintendents across the park system, the director said they should prohibit visitors from "launching, landing, or operating unmanned aircraft on lands and waters administered by the Park Service." The policy memorandum directs park superintendents to take a number of steps to exclude unmanned aircraft from national parks. The steps include drafting a written justification for the action, ensuring compliance with applicable laws, and providing public notice of the action. The memorandum does not affect the primary jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration over the National Airspace System. The policy memorandum is a temporary measure.

A survey of Traveler's Facebook audience Friday showed strong support for a ban on drones.

"I hiked out to Plateau Point at Grand Canyon only to have my experience marred by the hideous noise coming from the thing. I also do not know if I was on camera- but I resented the fact that I might have been!" wrote Cynthia Raufmann-Trewartha.

"No drones! One more negative example of man changing nature, habitat etc. for wildlife. Why can't people just enjoy peace & quiet in the great outdoors?" said Noralee Storie.

Added Connie Ruth Marshall Thompson, "I'm okay with limited use of drones. Rescue purposes and limited research and photography purposes. It would intrude on the natural conditions to have drones present."

In his memo to superintendents, Director Jarvis noted that "there has been dramatic growth throughout the United States in the numbers and use of unmanned aircraft during recent years. The likely increase in the use of these devices in units of the National Park System will undoubtedly impact park resources, staff, and visitors in ways that have yet to be identified."

Director Jarvis said the next step will be to propose a Servicewide regulation regarding unmanned aircraft. That process can take considerable time, depending on the complexity of the rule, and includes public notice of the proposed regulation and opportunity for public comment, a Park Service release said. The policy memo directs superintendents to use their existing authority within the Code of Federal Regulations to prohibit the use of unmanned aircraft, and to include that prohibition in the park’s compendium, a set of park-specific regulations. All permits previously issued for unmanned aircraft will be suspended until reviewed and approved by the associate director of the National Park Service’s Visitor and Resource Protection directorate.

While drones were being banned, park superintendents were given the latitude by the director to allow the use of model aircraft for hobbyist or recreational use. Additionally, the Park Service may use unmanned aircraft for administrative purposes such as search and rescue, fire operations and scientific study. These uses must also be approved by the associate director for Visitor and Resource Protection.

Visitors who are caught violating the ban are subject to a fine of $5,000 and a six-month jail sentence.


As a pilot -- even though I can't afford to fly any more -- those things cause some real concern for birdmen around the country. The FAA is struggling to come up with a workable solution, but there's a lot of Congressional pressure coming down on both sides of the issue. Even a little UAV could cause big problems for a light aircraft. Most people flying drones are not going to be aware of airspace restrictions that may limit such flights to certain altitudes to avoid conflicts with other air traffic.

Bird strikes cause enough damage every year. Let's not add another source of trouble.

Maybe the folks in that Colorado town had a good idea. Pass laws allowing people to simply shoot 'em down. Now that guns are permitted in parks, this might give some of our visitors something exciting to do.

I ran some quotations from this article through a computerized translation program and got most interesting results!

Input: "We embrace many activities in national parks because they enhance visitor experiences with the iconic natural, historic and cultural landscapes in our care,” Director Jarvis said in a release.

Output: "Worship services are at 10:30, noon, and 2:00."

Input: "However, we have serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks, so we are prohibiting their use . . ."

Output: "The Directorate of Prohibitions down on the third floor ran out of work, and we have to find something for it to do or it'll be subject to budget cuts . . ."

Input: ". . . until we can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience."

Output: ". . . so we've put the Directorate to work explaining why doing anything we find out of line is inimical to the carefully designed rich experiences we require visitors to have."

There's no end to the prohibitions stacked on prohibitions in these majestic areas that unfortunately are subjected to regulatory overkill (complete with armed rangers to round people up and federal trial courts right in the parks to convict and punish them). The Missoulian newspaper reported the other day that it's a criminal offense to record a video in a wilderness area (presumably whether NPS or Forest Service) and show it for profit (unless it's for fund-raising for one of those suitably reverent PBS parks-and-forests programs, in which case it's fine). I kid you not:

Chris Ryan spent 34 of her 35 years at the U.S. Forest Service in wilderness management. . . . “Making those calls was one of the more difficult things I worked on in that job,” Ryan said of wilderness management. “Can an outfitter make a video of an elk hunt? Yes, but he can’t sell that video. He can use it to advertise his trips, but he can’t sell it to Duck Dynasty.”

This is why some of us feel that one of the more regrettable things that can happen in a majestic wildland is for it to become either a designated Forest Service wilderness and/or a unit of the National Park System. Out go fun and personal initiative, in come the churches, the cops, and the courts.

Here's the link:

Imtnbke, funny and sad. NPS of today has run amuck. When we wil get some real common sense leadership? I guess the drones makes them feel bad.

imtnbke, I am opposed to drones in parks and wilderness areas, I hope the NPS applies strict review procedures for any administrative uses they maybe contemplating when using drones. I do agree things get a little out of hand at times. Speaking of filming w/o a permit, I was on a patrol one day and ran into a gentleman filming a porn video. A difficult contact to say the least. I did inform the gentleman he must cease and desist as it was in violation park of regulations, at least the filming for profit part of it. In any case, I do have some empathy for your viewpoint on over regulation, it is usually the result of overzealous enforcement. NPS policy still states that LE personnel use the lowest effective level of enforcement in visitor contacts. That can range from from a friendly hello to an educational contact (verbal warning), to a written warning, citation and in extreme cases, arrest. The Ranger must take into account the circumstances and severity of the violation, at least I think that still is the case. When we come to violations resulting in harm to wildlife, destruction of park resources, the usual action is a citation. The issue really is that parks are overwhelmed with requests for activities and events, I can tell you from 50 plus years of experience they simply cannot cave in to them all. It is amazing the myriad interests our citizens have, from, yes, mountain biking, riding an elephant on a trail, helicopter skiing and backpacking, base jumping, well the list goes on and on and we are not even talking about commercial filming, TV shows, fund raising activities, weddings, oh my gosh, it is a tough job to deal with it. All these citizens believe their activity is important and should be allowed. Restrictions are simply a price we pay for the growth and development , as important as it maybe , in our nation today. As difficult as it is, I think we must hold the line on this issue.

Rmackie, thanks. I appreciate your thoughtful reply and am glad we have some common ground. Thanks also, beachdumb.

Also, rmackie, I have to say the description on your post of encountering the risqué video recording is one of the most startling things I've read on NPT! How amazing!

Rmackie, out of curiosity and in light of the law enforcement priorities you mention, if you found a mountain biker riding on a trail and doing no substantive harm, but violating a no-bikes rule, would you issue a ticket? Do you ever find mountain bikers on NPS trails?

Yeah, Mr. Mackie. If I break the law and only do a little damage, am I in trouble?

Ron is right -- as usual. Thanks, Ron.

As I tried to point out above, civilian drones are something new. No one really knows what to make of the developing situation. It's much, much bigger than the controversy over their use in parks.


Sorry if this is a bit off topic, but what differentiates a radio-controlled, model aircraft from a drone?


Radio controlled aircraft also fall into the realm of "drones". I agree with the ban after I thought about it for quite some time. While ethical photographers wouldn't use a drone to harass wildlife, many hobbiest looking to make a buck into the pro realm would. They would have no qualms using it to harass bears, wolves, birds nesting, etc. Or jeopardize visitors. There were already many videos out there of people flying these on angels landing. You get 20 people up there flying their drones in one big party, and it could be a recipe for disaster as they buzz around people trying to make it to the top of that formation. One loses their concentration or accidentally gets hit from a drone operator not fully in control of his drone, and it's wile-e-coyote time. Just from this article they talk about drones buzzing big horn sheep, and the incident at the Grand Canyon where he lost his drone down in the canyon. In that case alone, there goes some lithium ion batteries left to leach into the fragile soil.

While I understand the concerns about more government regulation, there are reasons for bans on drones in places like national parks. Just a few, based on incidents already cited:

(1) many people have little understanding of the effects of such devices on wildlife (they may not intend to harass wildlife, they're just clueless; (2) drones aren't silent – and the noise will be very annoying to other park visitors. There a very few places left in the country today where relative "quiet" is even somewhat protected; (3) even for drone fans, how many are too many in one area at the same time? Five in Yosemite Valley at once, or ten, or ...?

Just because something is "fun" or the technology exists doesn't mean it's a good idea, anyplace, anytime. National parks are established because they have some unique values; what's the point of having them if they are treated just like everywhere else?

The surprising thing here for me is that there is even a debate about the ban. I hope the BLM and Forest Service follow suit (will never happen probably though).

A drone is self-guiding using a GPS. Radio-controlled vehicles are controlled by a human operator via remote control.

Very probably, drones should be prohibited. But not on a whim; if it's going to be done, it should be done after a reasoned inquiry. Also, if drones are going to be banned, let it apply to the NPS itself. I can imagine drones flitting about and dropping off tickets for people at a campsite who are camped five feet too close to a stream, for example—courtesy of a controller in Washington, D.C.

Also, I think drones may start to be used in Forest Service wilderness areas. I did volunteer trail repair work near the South San Juan Wilderness in southern Colorado in 2012. That wilderness is probably comparable to Rhode Island in size. The wilderness ranger told me he's the only one left (nominally) to monitor it, and he can't do it as a practical matter because he has too many duties elsewhere. He told me that the Forest Service is considering aerial surveillance for wilderness areas where there are, as a matter of budgetary realities, no Forest Service employees present.

Great post imtnbke, I agree, the agencies need to have very strict guidelines on their own use of drones in parks and wilderness areas. It is always a rub when the agency forbids a use, then employs the high tech applications itself. On the question of enforcement, I perhaps am not the best person to ask. I have been retired almost 20 years now, so a little out of touch. My own experience working in 3 major National Parks, was that 95% of visitors, plus, were on vacation, wanting to have a pleasant and enjoyable experience. Approaching these people was normally pleasant and a friendly educational approach was usually quite effective. Not always, the major exception was when intoxication was an issue. This was especially true in the more minor infractions, camping to close to water a good example. Often times, visitors do not know the regulation, a site is already established and here in the Sierra there are places it is hard to do. My own approach was to contact them, explain the intent of the rule and, where it was truly a bad site selection, help them move their camp. I made many friends doing that. The purpose of most rules is gain voluntary compliance, it is the spirit and intent of the rule that is important, not just the letter. Most rules have the explanation for the need to comply. At least in Parks, not always, education is the key in my view. RickB, in your work, you had to work with citizens that had some real issues, I would be interested to know your view on this issue.

Ron--Remember what our old boss in Yosemite used to say, "The best law enforcement is interpretation. When visitors understand the value of things, they are less likely to do them harm." Like you, I have been retired for some time, but I still believe that to be true.


I don't understand the thinking behind giving more latitude to model aircraft (which I assume means radio controlled planes and helicopters) but banning drones. I suspect that model aircraft have the potential to be much more dangerous and louder than most drones. At any rate I'm fine with a ban on all of them. Now if they would just ban generators & cell phones I'd be a happy camper :)

Mr Mackie, in most of my medical career my experience matched yours. Explain things reasonably, most people are reasonable. Alcohol or other sensory alterations of course throws wild cards in. Most of my experience with the mentally ill was with the more significantly disturbed individuals, generally the most dangerous and violent sort, more than people who simply are mildly depressed or such. With that extreme minority, you never knew - it could be the color of your socks that set them off, or the fact that you look them in the eyes, or what they had for lunch yesterday.

On the more general topic of the thread, after listening to all the discussion and thinking on it, I don't think that there should be either drones or radio controlled planes/helicopters for the most part. There may be someplace [I'm thinking generally of someplace without wildlife but with open spaces] but it would be a random individual exception.

There was a very interesting piece on last night's KSL television news out of Salt Lake City regarding a drone at Rainbow Bridge.

Listen to the soundtrack. I wasn't aware that those things were so loud.

Where's one of those 'open-carry' folks when you you need them?

I spoke to Al Nash at Yellowstone a few minutes ago about the Yellowstone incident. We'll have a story up in a bit.

Tahoma, the clip from KSL didn't include it, but after this piece aired, the news anchors were joking about needing anti-aircraft missiles to shoot them down.

But I did think the young drone pilot's attitude was very good. He understood and wasn't angry. I think he realized it had been a thoughtless act and he'll maybe think twice even in other places.