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National Parks Prohibiting UAVs
Greg Walker
University of Alaska Fairbanks

A new National Park Service policy prohibits the use of unmanned aircraft on parks property. The policy is intended to give the agency time to assess the risks and benefits of allowing UAVs on parks land.

On June 20th, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis issued a memorandum directing park superintendents to ban the use of unmanned aircraft in national parks. A spokesman for the parks service, Jeffrey Olson, says the unmanned aerial vehicles being used in national parks are primarily owned by hobbyists for recreation.

“They usually have a video camera that is carried aloft and they shoot video and stills and a lot of times they go home and they make a little video out of it and put a music soundtrack on it and share it with friends or even put it on YouTube," Olson said. 

Denali National Park spokeswoman Kris Fister says a recent post on YouTube shows some of the problems that arise with UAVs in national parks.

“They were in the Savage River parking lot and they flew up and provided an overview of the area and then at one point the aircraft zoomed down, flew right over the nest enclosure that we have for the mew gulls that nest on the gravel bar and flew under the Savage River bridge," Fister said. "So that’s an instance where certainly there was high potential for wildlife disturbance and potentially disturbance to visitors who are also utilizing that parking lot.”

Parks spokeswoman for the state, Morgan Warthin, says Alaska has limited experience with UAVs, but there is concern about the effects they could have on the park’s environment.

“Our primary goal is always to ensure that we can protect park resources and ensure visitor safety while providing all visitors with a rich experience, and at this point we have some serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks, in particular in the lower 48," she said. 

Jeffrey Olson agrees. He says increasing availability and affordability of the technology led the parks service to reevaluate their policy. He calls the new policy a “timeout” that gives the Parks Service time to research the effects of UAVs and develop nationwide regulations.

“We don’t have all the answers, and that’s why this is temporary. We like to have people in National parks and we like to have people enjoying themselves in national parks and if there are places where this is going to be an appropriate activity we want to find that out," Olson said.

The maximum penalty for violating the policy will be six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. The policy won’t go into effect for 60 days. Research and development of nationwide regulation could take 18 months or more.