Drones in National Parks: NPS uses the Precautionary Principle

On Friday, Jon Jarvis the Director of the National Park Service signed a policy memorandum that prohibits the “launching, landing, or operating unmanned aircraft on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service.”  The common term for such an unmanned aircraft is “drone”.   As the cost of drones has decreased, their popularity outside of the commercial sector has increased and drones had become a more common sight in National Parks recently. You can buy a drone on Amazon for a mere $300 that is already outfitted with 720p HD video that can be live streamed to your tablet or smartphone. Heck, if you’re a student at the University of South Florida you can even check a drone out of the library!  To see one way that drones were being used in National Parks check out the video below taken by a visitor with a drone at Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park.

The inspiration for this new policy was a series of problems, associated with drones use, observed in National Parks across the country.  Drones were disturbing visitors, putting visitor safety at risks, and people had even been observed harassing wildlife with their drones (see the official NPS press release here for descriptions of these “problem drone” incidents).  Zion National Park and Grand Canyon National Park had already prohibited drone use within their boundaries before the public memorandum on Friday. Yosemite National Park was also attempting to ban drone use claiming that drones were included under the NPS-wide policy that prohibits the operation and use of aircraft within National Parks.  However, as pointed out on Twitter and a few other websites, drones (because they are unmanned) do not actually fall under the current NPS aircraft regulations.

Given this loophole in current aircraft regulations and the increase in problems associated with drone use in National Parks, I believe it was in Jon Jarvis and the National Park Service’s best interest to use the precautionary principle by banning drones. I definitely agree with the current drone ban. In an interview with the Associated Press, Jon Jarvis was quoted as saying:

“This is a different kind of aircraft, and it is being used in different ways than what we have seen from the (model aircraft) hobbyists…We want to have some control over it now before it proliferates.”

The current ban on drones is temporary until the NPS can get a better handle on the best way to manage drones in National Parks.  Jon Jarvis is hoping to have a formal rule for unmanned aircraft completed in approximately 18 months. The rule drafting process will most likely include a period for public comment.  All permits previously issued for drone use in National Parks have been suspended but the NPS can use drones for search and rescue operations and fire suppression efforts. Additionally, researchers and filmmakers – if they can provide a good reason for needing to use a drone – may be provided a special permit to allow them to operate drones within park boundaries before the final rule.   So, next time you head to any one of the 401 National Park units, be sure to leave your drone at home.


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