Standing in the presence of the unbelievably immense, monolithic slabs of stone in Zion National Park is an experience that is not soon forgotten and, I’d argue, even spiritual. Gaze up at those massive sandstone cliffs as you hike The Narrows and you’d swear you’ve entered an alien world where 2,000-foot-high gods of rock rule. If you’re brave enough, you can even trek on the shoulders of those gods, by walking on the aptly named Angels Landing Trail. And since 84 percent of the park is designated as wilderness, there are scores of other spots where you can commune with nature and find solitude.
But now imagine that you’re in Zion walking that precipitous pathway — with sheer drop-offs on both sides — and a drone buzzes close by your head. Not only does that distract you and make you feel unsafe, it suddenly changes your great outdoor and unplugged experience.
Similar scenarios in our national parks have caused some of them — including Zion National Park — to ban drone use. While some applaud the move, others feel that their preferred way to photograph the parks is being unfairly singled out and prohibited. But is attaching a camera to a drone truly similar to other forms of photography?
Drone danger for those in the air
Although drones (unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs) are typically small and usually fly only a few hundred feet off the ground, their use is not without danger to those of us who travel on commercial flights. In early May 2014, in fact, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revealed details about a March 22, near-collision between a 50-seat passenger plane and a drone at Tallahassee Regional Airport in Florida. The pilot reported that he nearly hit a drone (that was painted in camouflage colors) at 2,300 feet as his aircraft was coming in for a landing. While this particular drone wasn’t inordinately big, the FAA estimated that it still could have caused a serious problem for the much larger aircraft.
Yet another incident in March underscored the danger of irresponsible drone use. An Alitalia airlines pilot at 1,750 feet over John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York stated that while he was approaching the runway, he spotted a small, unmanned aircraft within 200 feet of his plane.
Drone nuisance for those on the ground
Recently, on May 11, 2014, USA Today reported that the incident that spurred Zion National Park to make drone use illegal within its borders was when a UAV was spotted near several young bighorn sheep, causing them to get separated from the adults in the herd. Such a separation is risky for the sheep and could cause the young animals to die.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Grand Canyon National Park have also decided to officially ban the use of unmanned aircraft. While there are not yet specific regulations regarding drones in all the U.S. National Parks Service properties, use of drones is generally considered a “new recreational use” and as such is not allowed under existing policy. In the near future, the park service expects to specifically address the issue of drone use within the parks’ borders and offer guidelines that all park superintendents can follow.
California’s Yosemite National Park became the latest to join the list of parks that prohibit drones on May 2, 2014, after an increase in the use of UAVs to film climbers or capture above-tree vistas. Drones were described in the announcement as having made negative impacts in the park, such as intruding on the natural soundscape, creating an environment that is not conducive to wilderness travel, interfering with emergency rescue operations and disturbing wildlife, especially peregrine falcons that nest on cliff walls.
Artistic license for those in the parks
Some would argue, however, that using drones to film in national parks is much like using other forms of new technology — such as cell phone cameras —and is, in the end, just a way to realize artistic expression. Because of this, drones should not be singled out for banning. The National Park Service itself has used unmanned aircraft on a limited basis for remote research projects in California’s Mojave National Preserve, Hawaii’s Haleakala National Park and Washington’s Olympic National Park.
Critics of drone prohibition in national parks point out that the devices benefit parks by documenting their beauty, letting people around the world who might never get to visit them in person see their majesty. While they admit that there are some “bad” drone pilots out there who adversely affect the experience of other park visitors or disturb wildlife, that’s no excuse to punish all drone pilots. As with cell phone users, there are those who are polite and those who won’t follow accepted outdoor etiquette. And, after all, we don’t forbid taking pictures in our parks with huge, 800-millimeter camera lenses or tablets.
Do you think that banning drones in our national parks is justified, or does it unfairly outlaw a mode of artistic expression?
Feature photo: Yellowstone National Park may be a step ahead of other parks in drone regulations. Because many of its areas hold a wilderness designation, the use of mechanical devices — such as drones — is already prohibited. ©Henry H. Holdsworth