Can I Fly a Drone in a National Park?

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One of the best things that you can do with a drone is to capture the majesty of nature in photos and video shot from way up high. Unfortunately, rules enforced by various authorities mean that you can’t just fly your drone everywhere. National parks and forests – arguably some of the best spots for drone photography – are particularly problematic. Is there any legal way to fly a drone over a National Park? How about in National Forests?

Can I fly my drone in a National Park?

Under normal circumstances, no, you are not allowed to fly your drone over a National Park. This was set in stone by a blanket restriction that was announced in August 2014 by the National Park Service (NPS). Under 36 CFR 1.5, the restriction covers not only drones, but all types of unmanned aircraft including model airplanes.

The blanket restriction is very heavy on drone pilots and aspiring drone photographers, as the NPS has authority over a total of 417 parks, 60 rivers, and 23 trails. To further emphasize how far-reaching the authority of the NPS is, the ban against drones also covers hundreds of monuments, historic sites, biking trails, seashores, and battlefields. It is this scope of restriction and lack of any concession for special applications that has made this a particularly controversial topic among drone flight communities.

Why not?

If you’re curious why such a broad restriction had to be put in place, then we’ll let the NPS explain it to you. According to their statement, flying drones over National Parks pose a safety threat to visitors, staff, and wildlife. Noise is also an issue, as having drones buzz around may disturb the serenity that may be the very reason that many visitors flock to these parks.

Interestingly, the NPS themselves employ a fleet of drones that they use for administrative and safety purposes. Not all National Parks have these, and their use is only allowed upon the approval by the director of the region in which the park is located. The NPS primarily uses these drones for aerial photography, scientific studies, fire safety operations, and search and rescue operations.

What are the possible penalties?

The ban on drones is enforced by park rangers who have the authority to assess potential violations on a case-to-case basis. According to the guidelines of the ban, violators may face up to six months of jail time and up to $5000 in fines. The NPS seems pretty serious about enforcing these penalties, as there has been at least one account of a tourist being penalized because of flying a drone over the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Yellowstone National Park.

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Is there still a way to fly a drone over a National Park?

The good news is that there are still several ways that you can fly a drone over a National Park. The bad news is that you need to either have a very good reason to fly the drone, or you’ll be merely skirting around the restrictions.

1. Take off and land outside of park property

Technically, the ban is against the take-off, landing, and operations of a drone inside a National Park. Some drone pilots have managed to exploit a loophole in this statement by taking off and landing their drones outside of park property. As the FAA has authority over all airspace, the NPS technically cannot enforce restrictions on the airspace above National Parks.

The problem with this approach is that National Parks are so huge, and you can only go so far from your take-off point before the drone goes outside of your visual line-of-sight or the range of communication with your transmitter. Still, it’s not impossible to get good drone shots even while working under such stringent circumstances.

Take note, although the NPS no longer has authority over airspace, you can still get cited if you violate any FAA regulations on drone flight. These include flying over people or flying at night if you are a Part 107-licensed drone pilot. You also need to take note of any restricted or controlled airspace over or surrounding the National Parks.

2. Fly for scientific studies or research

In special cases, the NPS can grant permission for drone flight. Drone flight for scientific studies or research can be approved, upon the discretion of NPS administration, by securing a written permission from the agency. If you intend to fly under such conditions, you will need to get in touch with the management of the park you intend to fly on.

How about National Forests?

National Forests fall under the authority of the US Department of Agriculture. Their rule on flying drones over National Forests is a bit less restrictive. According to the letter by United States Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell, if the primary purpose of the activity is to inform the public and is decidedly non-commercial, then there is no need to get a permit for the activity or to pay any fees.

Moreover, drone flight activity is only allowed in areas that the general public can also access and should have no more impact on the land than the general public.

The restrictions imply that not all areas in National Forests are allowed for drone flight or drone photography. The most important restriction is in wilderness areas, or areas that are considered ecologically sensitive. In fact, all “motorized equipment” (of which drones are considered to be part of) are prohibited from operating in wilderness areas as they can cause disturbance on the nearby wildlife. Any undue stress on these animals can cause them to change their habits or can even result in physical harm or death.

Fortunately, wilderness areas form only a small portion of National Forests. If you are unsure where you are allowed to fly your drone, then we suggest that you consult a map that defines the location and extent of no-fly zones.

Can I fly my drone in State Parks?

State parks are under the jurisdiction of the relevant state, country, or city. As such laws and restrictions on drone flight in State Parks may vary from one region to the next. Most State Parks are pretty lax about drone flight, but we still recommend that you check the park’s website before you go about packing your drone. The park superintended may also designate a limited area in the park where drone flight is permitted.

Another thing you’ll need to be wary of is if the State Park is within 5 miles of an airport. According to Part 107 and Model Aircraft rules, drone flight outside of uncontrolled airspace will require prior permission from air traffic control. If you are unsure if you will end up flying in controlled or restricted airspace, then we suggest taking the time to check a sectional chart or to read up on local laws.

Final thoughts

Although aerial photos of natural vistas are some of the best ways of demonstrating what drones can do, drone pilots still need to be respectful of the fact that not all areas welcome the idea of drones buzzing around. Whether it’s due to safety, privacy, or disturbance issues, there are certain regions in the country where we cannot fly a drone as we please. National Parks are good examples, as they have some of the strictest limitations against drone flight.

Is it worth the risk to fly over a National Park to capture a couple of nice photos? Probably not, as you might end up in jail or paying a fine, on top of getting your drone confiscated. We highly recommend staying out of National Park borders and capture photos from whatever angle you can get without violating park restrictions.

This is merely a show of respect for authority, something that the NPS will probably appreciate. We are hopeful that, with good behavior, the NPS can eventually relax their rules on drone flight over National Parks. Until then, the best course of action for drone pilots is to comply.