Why You Can’t Fly a Drone at Yellowstone

The National Park Service says its ban on drones doesn’t just apply to Yosemite.

National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
May 7, 2014, 10:04 a.m.

After Yosemite Na­tion­al Park an­nounced it was ground­ing drone flights earli­er this week, as­pir­ing pi­lots may have set their sights on Yel­low­stone. But Old Faith­ful fly­overs will have to wait too — along with any oth­er plans to launch a drone from a na­tion­al park.

“We all op­er­ate un­der the same policy,” said Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice spokes­man Jeff Olson. “Our policy calls [drone fly­ing] a new re­cre­ation­al activ­ity, and new re­cre­ation­al activ­it­ies are not al­lowed un­til they’re looked at, re­viewed, and either ap­proved or we de­cide to not al­low them.”

For now, that ap­prov­al has not yet come.

“I don’t have a firm timeline” of when a de­cision will be made, Olson said.

Fol­low­ing the Yosemite an­nounce­ment, NPS noted that drones had also been har­ass­ing big­horn sheep in Zion Na­tion­al Park. Pun­ish­ment for fly­ing in the park, said the agency, could en­tail up to six months in pris­on and $5,000 in fines.

But most parks are un­likely to mete out that pun­ish­ment, at least right away. “There’s dis­cre­tion at sev­er­al places along that whole con­tinuum,” Olson said. “A lot of that plays in­to wheth­er someone [has been] asked to stop.”

And while the rules are uni­ver­sal, “only a hand­ful of parks have taken dir­ect ac­tion” to pub­li­cize the ban, Olson said. Those parks, like Yosemite and Zion, are ones that have ex­per­i­enced fre­quent is­sues with drones and needed to make their policies clear.

A re­cent For­bes art­icle called in­to ques­tion the au­thor­ity of NPS to stop drones, cit­ing the air­craft reg­u­la­tion it used to jus­ti­fy the ban. Earli­er in that reg­u­la­tion, it defines air­craft as those that carry hu­man pas­sen­gers, which would seem to ex­clude drones.

But, said Olson, fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions also al­low NPS to po­lice such things as “vis­it­or safety, nuis­ances, and dis­orderly con­duct. Those ap­ply no mat­ter if you are a per­son walk­ing in the park or fly­ing un­manned air­craft.”

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