Flying aerial drones in the National Parks of the USA was outlawed in June 2014 by the Director of the National Park Service in his Policy Memorandum 14-05.
Several incidents led to this interim policy guidance, which supplements Title 36 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). For example, I read reports about amateur drones harassing wildlife, interfering with search and rescue efforts, interfering with fighting forest fires, and in one case a drone that crashed into the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.
What You as a Drone Pilot Need to Know
Let’s just get down to the important stuff – what can they do to you if you get caught? Park Rangers are permitted by law to make arrests for violations, and if convicted a drone pilot faces fines and jail time.
So, where does it say that? Title 36 CFR Part 1.5 and the Policy Memo provide the authority, and 36 CFR Part 1.3 states the penalties, which read: “shall be punished by a fine as provided by law, or imprisonment not exceeding 6 months, or both, and shall be adjudged to pay all costs of the proceedings.” I’ve also heard of Park Rangers confiscating drones, but I haven’t seen a policy statement granting them that authority.
What parks are covered? Title 36 covers all lands that fall under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, including National Parks, National Military Parks, National Monuments, and Battlefield Sites.
Can I Fly Over Other Federal Lands?
Currently, my sources state that you can fly your drone over the National Forests and most lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. However, watch for changes in policy as lawmakers are crafting new rules regarding aerial drones.
Process for Permission
For most drone pilots, the bar is simply too high to get a waiver or what the National Park Service calls a Special Use Permit. The NPS Policy Memorandum outlines the process in Exhibit B. Paraphrased, it states the Park’s Superintendent will receive a written request for proposed drone operations and endorse it up the chain of command to the Associate Director, Visitor and Resource Protection office in Washington, DC for approval.
Are There Any Workarounds?
Once your drone is airborne, your flight falls under FAA rules. The NPS Policy Memo acknowledges this and states “Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the NPS is prohibited.” However, under the FAQ section (no. 9), this prohibition is clarified with a very useful statement that aerial drone flights originating outside the park’s boundary ARE permitted to fly over national park lands (because they’re in the air space that falls under the jurisdiction of the FAA). I will add that the wise drone pilot will fly strictly in accordance with the safety provisions of the FAA’s 14 CFR Part 107.