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Is it Legal to Fly Drones in National Parks and State Parks?

Is it Legal to Fly Drones in National Parks and State Parks?

Drones give users a birds-eye view when it comes to capturing photos and videos. However, they’re not really environmentally friendly. Think about all the drones stuck in trees or at the bottom of lakes. For this reason, many conservation areas and national parks have strict rules about who can fly a drone, where they can fly a drone, and for how long.

You generally need a Special Use Permit to legally fly a drone in a national park or a state park. This is not for recreational use; Special Use Permits generally apply to search and rescue missions, controlled fires, and research. It’s virtually impossible for tourists to get these permits.

While it’s illegal to fly drones in national and state parks without permits, there are plenty of other things you can do to capture your park experience. Continue reading to learn more.

Why Can’t You Fly a Drone at a National Park?

The National Park Service (NPS) has one goal: to protect the county’s most precious ecosystems. Allowing visitors for education, research, and recreation takes a backseat. Here, nature comes first.

Reasons why you can’t fly a drone at a state or national park include:

  • They create waste. Drones are not biodegradable; they contain plastic, metal, and battery acid. If a drone gets lost, it’ll disrupt the surrounding ecosystem. It can poison a water source or destroy an animal’s habitat.
  • They can hurt animals. Even an experienced drone operator risks hitting a bird. This does more than knock the drone out of the air; it can also threaten the animal’s life. There are over 75 endangered birds in the U.S. alone. If you hurt or kill one, you could face criminal charges under the Endangered Species Protection Act.
  • They can disrupt users’ experience. As a park visitor, you can’t even take videos or photos if it means disrupting someone else’s experience. The same goes for flying drones.

Can I Fly a Drone Over a National/State Park if I’m Not in the Park?

The NPS can’t do anything if you’re flying a drone outside of one of their parks. Matters change if you’re flying a drone over protected land, but you’re not in the park itself.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) notes that while flying a drone, it must be in your line of sight at all times. This creates something of a grey area if you’re just outside the park’s perimeter and you’re flying a drone. However, to err on the side of caution, you should avoid doing this.

What Happens if I Fly an Unpermitted Drone at a National/State Park?

If you file a drone without special permits, you risk criminal charges. In addition to being banned from the parks, you can also face a misdemeanor charge. Per the NPS, this can entail:

  • Up to six months in prison
  • A fine of up to $5,000

Sometimes, these charges can accompany other offenses. For instance, suppose you’re flying a drone, it falls into the water, and it destroys some coral reef. Coral reef is protected under the Endangered Species Act. This can result in felony charges, which may include:

  • A civil fine of up to $25,000
  • A criminal fine of up to $50,000
  • Up to a year in prison

Long story short: don’t fly a drone in a state park or national park. The penalties aren’t worth it.  

How to Know Where You Can Legally Fly Drones

State and national parks aren’t the only places that limit where you can fly a drone. Many states and cities have their own rules about these airborne devices.

For instance, even if you’re flying on the outskirts of a designated forest, this is still illegal. The NPS considers these areas to be “wilderness” and prohibits flying any aircraft not issued by the organization.

With all these rules, you may ask yourself: “Jeez, can you fly a drone legally anywhere?”

You can––and the FAA wants to ensure a safe experience for everyone. It recently approved of the B4UFLY mobile app. This program shows where you can and cannot fly a drone. It’s free on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. It also shows:

  • Interactive maps
  • Controlled airspaces, like the areas around airports and military bases
  • Other relevant FAA information (like when you can’t fly a drone)

This is a perfect app to have if you’re visiting a state or national park. Even if you can’t fly within the park itself, you might be able to in other similar locations.

A Final Word

While it’s illegal to fly a drone in national and state parks, you still have plenty of options when operating your device. For everything you need to know about legally operating a drone, check out the FAA’s website.