FAIRBANKS — Tourists visiting Alaska’s most-famous national park, Denali National Park and Preserve, have their sights set on seeing wildlife and mountains, not drones.
To that end, the National Park Service on Friday announced a new policy that prohibits launching, landing or operating unmanned aircraft on Park Service lands in Alaska and the rest of the U.S.
“We embrace many activities in national parks because they enhance visitor experiences with the iconic natural, historic and cultural landscapes in our care,” Park Service director John Jarvis said in a press release. “However, we have some serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks.”
The Park Service is prohibiting the use of drones and other unmanned aircraft, such as radio-controlled planes, “until we can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience,” Jarvis said.
Unmanned aircraft have already been prohibited at several national parks in the Lower 48 because of noise and nuisance complaints from park visitors, an incident in which park wildlife were harassed, and park visitor safety concerns, the Park Service said.
Last September, an unmanned aircraft flew above visitors seated in the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Amphitheater and park rangers concerned for visitors’ safety confiscated the device.
In April, visitors at Grand Canyon National Park who had gathered for a quiet sunset were interrupted by a loud, unmanned aircraft flying back and forth. It eventually crashed in the canyon. Later in the same month, volunteers at Zion National Park witnessed an unmanned aircraft disturb a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from young animals.
Closer to home in Alaska, officials at Denali National Park and Preserve say they discovered a video posted on YouTube last Sunday that shows a drone equipped with a camera recently flying over a mew gull nesting area that was closed to the public near the Savage River, about 15 miles into the park.
A man standing in the parking lot was operating a
Phantom 2 quadcopter drone and the three-minute-plus video shows him clearly flying it over the nesting gulls, park spokeswoman Kris Fister said. The man also flew the drone under the Savage River bridge.
“He did fly it right over the gulls nesting there,” she said.
While that’s the only incident involving unmanned aircraft in the park that Denali officials are aware of, Fister said a photographer recently requested to use one — the request was denied — and she wouldn’t be surprised if there had been other instances of unmanned aircraft being used in the park.
A policy regarding the use of unmanned aircraft in national parks has been “burbling up” for a while, Fister said. The policy addresses the potential negative impact on park resources, a concern for visitor safety and a concern for visitor experience, she said.
“People don’t come to (national) parks to see unmanned aircraft,” Fister said.
The use of unmanned aircraft in Alaska has increased as the technology has become cheaper and more available. In recent years, government agencies have used unmanned aircraft to help map wildfires and sea ice. Oil and gas producer ConocoPhillips uses drones to fly over the Chukchi Sea as part of its oil and gas exploration.
Federal Aviation Administration officials in December announced that Alaska was one of six states selected to oversee testing sites for the possible commercial uses of drones as part of a congressional mandate to safely integrate the aircraft for wider use in U.S. skies and an effort to create standardized rules for flying them.
In March, the state Board of Game voted to prohibit the use of drones for hunting in Alaska after Alaska Wildlife Troopers were made aware of a drone-assisted moose kill in Interior Alaska in 2012. The law prohibiting the use of unmanned aircraft for hunting goes into effect July 1.
The Park Service’s new policy directs park superintendents to take steps to exclude unmanned aircraft from national parks, including drafting a written justification for doing so, ensuring compliance with applicable laws, and providing public notice of the ban.
Jarvis signed a policy memorandum on Friday that is a temporary measure. The next step will be to propose a Park Service-wide regulation regarding the use of unmanned aircraft in national parks. Because that process can take considerable amount of time, the memo Jarvis signed on Friday directs superintendents to use their existing authority within the Code of Federal Regulations to prohibit the use of unmanned aircraft in national parks. They must also include the prohibition in the park’s compendium, a set of park-specific regulations.
All permits previously issued for unmanned aircraft will be suspended until reviewed and approved by the associate director of the National Park Service’s Visitor and Resource Protection directorate.
Superintendents who have previously authorized the use of model aircraft for hobbyist or recreation use may allow such use to continue, Friday’s press release said.
Additionally, the Park Service may use unmanned aircraft for administrative purposes such as search and rescue, fire operations and scientific study, according to the press release. Those uses must also be approved by park administrators.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.
Denali Drone: To check out the YouTube video of the drone in Denali National Park and Preserve, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=MshwSU1jdzc.