Drones Banned in National, State, and Local Parks

Drones Affect Climbers, Wildlife, Rescues, and Visitor Experiences

Ryan Lusher/Getty Images

I was sitting on the small airy summit of South Gateway Rock at the Garden of the Gods a few weeks ago enjoying the setting sun and the view of 14,115-foot Pikes Peak to the west and the suburban sprawl of Colorado Springs to the east. After a few minutes, the peace and quiet were disturbed by a buzzing sound like a pesky mosquito in the juniper-studded valley below my perch.

Drone Hovered 10 Feet Away

Soon an unmanned drone aircraft came flying up the cliff face below, before hovering inquisitively above a nearby ridge that my climbing partner Susan was working across.

The drone came within 10 feet of both of us before the ground pilot banked the small aircraft away from us…this after I yelled at him to “get that drone outta here!” If it had got any closer I was ready to swat it out of the sky.

Drone Pesters Fisher Towers Climber

Darren Knezek, a climber and owner of Mountainworks in Provo, Utah, related a similar experience about his encounter with a drone last autumn while climbing Cottontail Tower at the Fisher Towers near Moab. A drone flew within a few feet of Darren while he was leading high on the spire, not only distracting him but also ticking him off. He gave an earful to the drone’s owner at the Fisher Tower’s parking lot and trailhead and, like me, told him that if the drone had got too close to him he would have knocked it down too.

Drones are Banned in Yosemite National Park

In early May 2014, the National Park Service issued a press release about the use of drones in California’s Yosemite National Park.

Park spokesman Scott Gediman said that federal regulations ban the use of unmanned aircraft in national parks. Yet every day there are drones flying around the Valley, buzzing climbers, soaring over meadows, flying near cliffs, as well as disrupting other park user’s experiences of the iconic national park.

Yosemite Points Out Reasons for Drone Ban

The park posted on its Yosemite National Park Facebook page on Friday, May 2: “Drones have been witnessed filming climbers ascending climbing routes, filming views above tree-tops, and filming aerial footage of the park. Drones can be extremely noisy and can impact the natural soundscape. Drones can also impact the wilderness experience.” The park also points out that drones “impact the wilderness experience for other visitors creating an environment that is not conducive to wilderness travel;” interferes with emergency rescue operations and distracts rescue personnel; and have “negative impacts on wildlife nearby,” especially nesting peregrine falcons.

Drones Banned in Parks by Federal Law

Drones, officially called Unmanned Aircraft Systems, are prohibited within all national parkland boundaries by regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations Thirty Six CFR 2.17(a)(3), which states: “‘…delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means, except in emergencies involving public safety or serious property loss, or pursuant to the terms and conditions of a permit’ is illegal. This applies to drones of all shapes and sizes.”

Drones Illegal in Colorado Springs Parks

A couple days ago I was at the Garden of the Gods early in the morning to do some photographs and stopped to talk with park ranger Snook Cipolletti at the parking lot where he was picking up trash. Snook said that the day before a man had asked him if he could fly a drone in the park. No, Snook told him, it was illegal to fly drones in the natural parks at Colorado Springs. He told the man that there were lots of green lawn parks in the city where he could legally fly his toy.

Drones Adversely Affect Wildlife

The reasons they are not allowed at the Garden were the same ones given by Yosemite National Park. Snook noted that the drones impacted the park visitor’s experience as well as wildlife. He said a wildlife biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife asked him a couple weeks before if drones were banned at Garden of the Gods since they impacted the nesting prairie falcons as well as white-throated swifts.

Drones Disturb Peace and Quiet for Climbers

Those are all great and logical reasons to ban drones in parklands and many climbing areas in the United States. There are, however, other issues. Drones buzzing around, taking photos and videos or just flying for the fun of the ground pilot, are an annoyance to other park users, disturbing the serenity, peace, and quiet that most visitors, including rock climbers and mountaineers, enjoy.

Drones Intrude on Personal Privacy

There is also the issue of personal privacy and drones. I do not want a drone flying near me taking photographs or filming a video of me without my consent. It’s one thing if a tourist on the paved parkway below South Gateway Rock or in El Cap Meadow is taking photographs of me, even with a long lens, climbing on the cliff above but to have an intrusive drone hovering near me and taking close-up images…that’s quite another beast.

Parklands Need to Protect Rights of Visitors and Wildlife

The recent use of drones by private citizens has opened a whole new world. I’m glad that management agencies like the National Park Service and the City of Colorado Springs Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services are not afraid to protect our privacy rights, the rights of wildlife, natural soundscapes, and wilderness and park experiences by enacting and enforcing laws prohibiting the use of drones.