Are Drones Allowed in National Parks?

Written by Jeremiah Wright
Published: April 29, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/seregalsv
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The national parks of the United States are some of the most beautiful and appreciated in the world. Millions of people visit them every year and, in some cases, there are always reasons to return to a particular park.

One of the reasons would be to capture some magnificent shots of nature in its most pristine form. National parks are officially designated areas that preserve the US’s historical, cultural, or natural aspects. Aerial shots and videos of these areas would be something out of this world.

Naturally, the question on everyone’s mind is whether drones are allowed in national parks or not. These small gadgets have the required power and technology to capture 4K footage in up to 60 frames per second. They are the best friend of any aspiring cinematographer or documentarian. 

If you happen to own one of these, let’s see if you’re allowed to use it in national parks.

Are drones allowed in national parks?

Octocopter, copter, drone
Drones are not allowed in national parks.

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No. Drones are not allowed in any of the 417 parks administered and managed by the National Park Service. This includes national trails, rivers, monuments, historic parks, etc. This law has been in place since June 2014 and states that the launching, landing, or operation of an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service is prohibited.

The only way you can fly a drone within the boundaries of a particular park would be to get approval in writing from the park’s superintendent.

What about the FAA’s authority over national airspace?

The Federal Aviation Administration has jurisdiction over any airspace part of the United States’ territory. It would make sense that parks’ superintendents can’t enforce any laws on the park’s airspace.

However, the National Park Service is a government entity. It has all the right to prevent and deny aircraft from entering its airspace. The same rule applies to FAA-certified drone pilots.

Can you fly a drone over a national park as an FAA-certified drone pilot?

Some regulations differentiate between commercial and recreational drone pilots. However, none of them are allowed to bypass the rules enforced by the NPS. According to the ban and the way it is formulated, the distinction between the types of pilots doesn’t matter.

What matters is that drones cannot be operated in national park airspace.

Can you fly drones in national parks?

Drones are not permitted in national parks unless accompanied by a signed permit.

iStock.com/Huseyin Bostanci

Drones are not permitted in national parks unless accompanied by a signed permit. This approval can come in the form of a Special Use Permit. The downside is that not only is it almost impossible to get one, but it also has different purposes. Such permits are issued for research, fire safety, and search and rescue purposes. Commercial or recreational drone usage and filming cannot obtain such a permit virtually.

One other way to get a drone into the airspace of a national park is to have it take off and land from outside the designated national area. This would mean that the drone is not launched, landed, or operated from or on national parks lands, as the law states. This practice is open to interpretation. If found, you could still be fined and held accountable.

Why are drones banned in national parks?

The ban is said to have stemmed after multiple individuals flew drones over parks in a manner deemed intrusive and irresponsible by the administration. The Director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis, states that the ban is rooted in serious concerns regarding the negative impact of flying unmanned aircraft in parks.

Drones could be a nuisance to visitors, but especially to the park’s flora and fauna. A session of trail hiking doesn’t feel the same when drones are buzzing around. As a result, drones are now banned in NPS-administered parks.

What happens if you fly a drone in a national park?

If you fly a drone in a national park, you risk the chance of being fined $5,000 and spending six months in jail.

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You risk the chance of being fined $5,000 and spending six months in jail if you fly a drone in a national park. Your drone and any associated gear will also be confiscated. Park rangers have the right to cite and ban you from the park. However, drone flight has many more implications within national park airspace.

In 2014, a drone was responsible for separating juvenile bighorn sheep from adults, another drone disrupted a local bird population, and one crashed into one of Yellowstone National Park’s geysers. Drones have also landed on Mount Rushmore, forced an NPS helicopter to perform an emergency landing, and again crashed into Yellowstone lake.

It is very easy for an artificial object, especially a flying gadget, to disrupt a park’s flora and fauna.

Where can you fly drones in the natural areas of the US?

Even if national parks are off-limits, drone pilots have some areas available where they can fly drones and get the aerial shots they want. These areas include national forests, local parks, state parks, and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Given that laws and regulations might change, it is essential to check with the park or area’s administration before you fly your drone there.

Takeaway – Why can’t you fly a drone in a national park?

You can’t fly a drone in a national park because the National Park Service has banned drone activity within the airspace of its parks and waters. There are little to no exceptions to this rule. Only documentarians have a slight chance of receiving permission, but if it doesn’t benefit the park, it might not happen.

If you fly a drone in an NPS-administered park, you risk interfering with the flora and fauna of the location. You can also disturb park visitors, hikers, bikers, camping tourists, etc. Drone pilots caught breaking the rules will be fined $5,000 and risk up to six months in jail. 

Drone pilots who really want to enrich their collection with shots and videos of stunning natural views can fly over state parks and national forests. Responsible drone flight is highly recommended, as you might get in trouble otherwise.

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