At this time of year, a popular vacation option is visiting national parks or other land administered by the federal government, as well as state and local authorities. Many drone operators have taken their drones with them to these beautiful places and are rightfully confused about whether they can operate or disappointed to find that they can’t. This is more of an issue in western states, which have much more land administered by the federal government

In general, UAS are prohibited in lands administered by the National Parks Service and in Wilderness areas administered by a variety of federal agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Drones are allowed in some National Forests and in some BLM lands that aren’t designated as wilderness. Prohibitions on drones at the state and local level vary depending on the state, park system, or city/county, and can be different from park to park in the same system. 

Regardless of where you want to operate, the best action you can take, if you’re able to plan in advance, is to look up the rules and regulations for the specific location where you want to fly. You may have to look at the website for a specific park, area, city, county, or open space you plan to operate, and you may need to call or email a ranger or superintendent to get the most accurate information. If flying commercially, you may need a permit.

National Parks Service (NPS)

The NPS issued Policy Memorandum 14-05, on June 19, 2014. It was issued as interim policy, but it is still in force with very few exceptions according to the NPS webpage. This policy prohibits launching, landing, and operation of unmanned aircraft on lands and waters administered by NPS, including National Parks, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, National Memorials, and others. These sites are shown in the Kittyhawk app and B4UFLY app as locations where drone flights are clearly prohibited.

This pin is dropped on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. It is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is administered by the National Parks Service. B4UFLY shows these areas in red, including Alcatraz and the area surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge.

The official National Park Service website has a page dedicated to “Unmanned Aircraft in the National Parks”, where it addresses some of the reasons why the NPS restricts the use of UAS in National Parks, how to obtain a permit, FAQs, and penalties for noncompliance.

Some drone operators have tried to get around these regulations by taking off from private property and flying over NPS lands and waters. Even if you do not launch, land, or operate from NPS-administered lands and waters, the NPS could apply regulations about wildlife disturbance, nuisance or disorderly conduct, or operating a motor vehicle to your drone flight regardless of where you launch and land. In addition to any posted regulations, you still must follow all FAA regulations for UAS operations, such as keeping your drone within visual line of sight.

What about National Forests?

Flying a drone in National Forests is not outright prohibited. The US Forest Service allows drones subject to a variety of restrictions, including following all regular FAA regulations and guidance, staying away from wildlife, designated wilderness areas, firefighting operations, manned aircraft operations, and any TFRs. However, operating a drone in wilderness areas in National Forest land is prohibited (see below).

What about Wilderness areas?

Flying a drone is prohibited in designated Wilderness areas. The National Wilderness Preservation System is a network of over 111 million acres – more area than the state of California – of public land comprising more than 760 wilderness areas administered for the American people by the federal government. 

The Wilderness Act of 1964 says that in wilderness areas there “shall be no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment…no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport…”.

In practical terms, the US Forest Service considers UAS to be “mechanized” equipment and prohibits taking off or landing in congressionally designated Wilderness areas on National Forest Service Lands.

To learn more about wilderness areas, including an interactive map of Wilderness areas, you can visit Wilderness Connect. This resource depicts designated Wilderness areas from multiple federal agencies administering federal lands across the country.

What about State, Regional, or City Parks?

Many drone operators ask about flying their drone in state parks, regional parks, city or county parks, or other non-federal land. Unfortunately, the rules for state parks vary from state to state and even vary from park to park in some states. 

For example, the California Dept. of Parks and Recreation allows drones in State Parks, State Beaches, State Historic Parks, State Recreation Areas, and State Vehicular Recreation Areas “except where prohibited by a District Superintendent’s posted order”, which can be posted for a variety of subjective reasons. In practical terms, however, many state parks prohibit use of UAS. 

States, counties, cities, and other local governments and parks systems can help increase the safety and knowledge of drone operators by making clear, broadly applicable regulations, and providing mapping data to UAS airspace platforms. We are working to get data from entities like state parks systems so that we can include that information in B4UFLY and Kittyhawk. 

Do you have experience trying to operate a UAS in National, State, Regional, or City Parks or the National Forest or Wilderness? Share your airspace data and experience with us here. We’re always looking for opportunities to enrich situational awareness for UAS operators and communities alike.