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.