Park Service bans private drones

Action taken to nip the drone problem in the bud-

Yesterday the National Park Service banned the use of private drones in all the parks. The ban is temporary while a permanent policy is set in place, but there is little reason to think the ban will be reversed.

Earlier we did a story on the pros and cons of drones and wildlife, but almost all reports of private drone use in the national parks have been negative. The accounts of their buzzing irritation to visitors and threats to human and animal safety have now led to not just a ban of future use, but revocation of all permits already granted for their use.  Enforcement might be a problem, but park visitors will probably not have to deal with these “large mosquitoes” to a great degree.

Every new motorized technology has prompted similar complaints, but it is hard to see how proliferation of drone use in the parks except for scientific and law enforcement use would not cause irritation or damage. Even use for research and law enforcement will draw the wrath of many.

The Park Service’s quick action will likely “nip in the bud” claims of  “historic use” that bolstered arguments of past new transportation methods.  Nonetheless makers of these robotic flying devices are already complaining about bans.

This issue will not die with a ban in the parks because many general commercial uses as well as private “joyflying” ideas are being contemplated or actually put in motion. Air space is already limited and subject to strict monitoring; the emergence of millions of drones will greatly aggravate the problem. A related problem is the violation of personal privacy.







  1. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Good. I can see how they would be valuable for scientific research and law enforcement which are subject to control, but I was bothered by reading about the harassing of big horn sheep just to get a photograph, and it would be annoying to park visitors too.

    1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

      They need to ban these devices in the national parks period.
      No exceptions for the Doug Smiths of the world who would use them to harass animals to death and call it research.

      1. JB Avatar

        Really Larry? You, who complain incessantly about the ‘horrors’ visited upon wildlife by radio collars–you of all people should be supportive of using non-intrusive drones for research. (And let’s be frank, given your profession, we know you’ve got nothing against harassing wildlife). Seems your real beef is with researchers or maybe Doug personally–given that you mention his name nearly every time you rant?

        1. Jay Avatar

          Don’t bother, Larry is a world class hypocrite. I recall he used radiocollar data (something about long distances traveled by bighorn rams as documented by GPS collar data and the implication for contact with domestic sheep and subsequent disease transmission) to support his comment made on this blog. Seems he finds radiocollar data useful, but only when it makes his point.

  2. CodyCoyote Avatar

    Of course, the Park Service will also implement their ” We have two sets of rules ” operations policy . Drones will be banned from use by the public , but will still be used by Park Rangers and researchers. Maybe even Maintenance crews.

    NPS has always worked two sets of administrative rules for everything…one for them, the other for the rest of us. I expect drones will be treated with that same duplicity.

    1. JB Avatar

      Yep. And that duplicity allows scientists–and by extension the Park Service–to learn more about the flora, fauna, geology, etc. of the parks; and, of course, pass that information on to the public. I wonder how many will complain the first time a drone locates a lost/injured hiker without out having to send out (and risk the lives of) expensive rescue crews?

      1. WM Avatar

        ++ I wonder how many will complain the first time a drone locates a lost/injured hiker without out having to send out (and risk the lives of) expensive rescue crews?++

        And would we extend this perceived rescue benefit to designated Wilderness within a National Park too?

        1. JB Avatar

          Of course; politically speaking, there’s no scenario in which someone is under extreme duress in the wilderness, we have the means to intervene, and choose not to.

          I assume you’re going to suggest it’s hypocritical to support drones in the Wilderness to rescue people, while opposing helicopters in the wilderness to kill wolves? If so, let me nip this in the bud and say flat out that I value human life more than elk hunting opportunities.

          1. WM Avatar

            I value human life as well, and believe it takes priority. However, I will suggest that the concept of wilderness “untrammeled by man” is the crux of both purposes.

            There are some “wilderness” purists who would argue no technology or vestiges of man should appear in designated Wilderness. In fact the NPS and other federal agencies with designated Wilderness under their jurisdiction are trying at this very moment to figure out the fate of physical structures (like crude lean-to or shelters, some of which have a safety function, deep in Wilderness). The issue is whether to maintain or improve them, or to remove or let nature reclaim them.

            So, do we just pick and choose technology or man-made interventions in Wilderness, whenever it suits us? Seems to me it would be somewhat inconsistent to remove these structures, while at the same time allowing drones and cell phones, or a manned helicopter pick-up of an injured or exhausted person.

            I can also imagine a Wilderness Ranger calling in a grocery list, including a pizza, 6 pack of cold beer and a thumb drive with a couple movies loaded on it, for use on an iPad, all delivered by drone.

            1. JB Avatar

              There are very few aspects of our social and legal environment that allow us to be entirely principled in decision-making (that is, to rely solely and firmly on principle). Even our most strict societal prohibitions (e.g., thou shall not kill) have exceptions (i.e., capitol punishment, war, self-defense). The idea is that we should generally rely upon the principle, while simultaneously acknowledging that we sometimes have very good reasons for ignoring the principle.

              In the current case, I would suggest that most people would see the preservation of human life as a very good reason to violate the wilderness principle (i.e., keep the wilderness untrammeled by man). (Indeed, we already violate this principle to provide various forms of recreation in the wilderness, in rare cases including motorized recreation). I would also be willing to bet that most folks would not think that the desire for a cold brew and a hot slice is adequate justification to violate the principle.

              1. WM Avatar

                How about if I told you that has already been done? Helicopter comes into designated Wilderness to pick up a bin full of hiker poop on the end of a cable. Wilderness Ranger comes out to hook up the cable, and the skids never touch the ground, as a couple of cross poles are laid for a temporary less than two minute landing site. Chopper pilot opens the door and hands the Wilderness Ranger a pizza and the 6-pack, along with some other supplies. I think there was some ice-cream, too. Indeed this was a multi-purpose trip serving several needs, but is it right for ANYONE to have the trappings of civilization deep in Wilderness?

              2. JB Avatar

                The fact that it has already been done (and [I think] we both find it objectionable) simply speaks to the need for a more formal policy that defines when violations of the principle are allowed (or if at all).

    2. The Wilderness Guy Avatar
      The Wilderness Guy

      If it’s a designated wilderness area, then they can’t use drones either. So there goes quite a bit of National Parks that drones will be outright banned, including by NPS employees.

  3. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    It has tremendous use for catching poachers and illegal drug/other activities, wonderful for tracking wildfires, and in this day and age of cutbacks in budgets and manpower, saves time and money. It would be a double-edged sword for hunters.

  4. Steve Avatar

    By what authority does the Park Service have jurisdiction over airspace? Did not appeals courts rule that airspace is under the FAA?

    1. W.Hong Avatar

      If I remember right, from what I have read Steve, the National Park Service does have the authority to regulate the parks, which includes the airspace above the park.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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