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Drones grounded in Saguaro National Park

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Drones grounded in Saguaro National Park

  • Don McCullough/Flickr

As part of a nationwide policy, unmanned aircraft have been banned in Saguaro National Park, officials said. The National Park Service is conducting a review to address drone usage, but has barred flying them on an interim basis.

The acting superintendent of Saguaro, Scott Stonum, released the policy as part of an update of park rules. The ban covers using unmanned aircraft, including drones, quadcopters, and model airplanes, within the park's boundary.

The move follows a direction from the director of NPS in late June, ordering local park heads to bar the use of drones at the 400 NPS-managed areas across the country by Aug. 20.

"We have serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks, so we are prohibiting their use while we examine their impact on park resources," said NPS Director Jon Jarvis on June 20.

The Park Service justified the interim rules by saying that drones are a "new use" for visitors.

"The use of unmanned aircraft is a new activity that affects park resources, staff, and visitors in ways that the National Park Service has yet to identify and analyze. It is National Park Service policy to not allow a new park use until a determination has been made that it will not result in unacceptable impacts on park resources and values," the agency said in a release from Saguaro spokesman Paul Austin.

"Saguaro National Park will enforce restrictions on the use of drones until the determination is made in regards to potential permitted drone use and their unintended consequences on park resource values, including wilderness, solitude, quiet, and direct impacts to sensitive species including the Mexican Spotted Owl," Stonum said in that release.

Violating the ban carries the potential for a $5,000 fine and six months in jail, but officials have said that park rangers have been told to use discretion in enforcement.

"They may say, 'Why don't you put that back in the trunk of the car.' And it could be as easy as that," a spokesman told the Wall Street Journal in June.

Some parks had earlier tried to use regulations covering manned aircraft to bar drone uses. The move to prohibit them on the "new use" basis came after attorneys raised questions.

The Federal Aviation Administration has tried to ban the use of drones for commercial purposes, but been blocked by the courts. The FAA is reviewing its rules covering money-making uses of unmanned aircraft.

From the Journal:

Brendan Schulman, a New York attorney who has challenged the FAA on its drone policies, said the park service's legal interpretation is still shaky. "Model aircraft have been used in national parks for decades," he said. "This is not a new use. All that's changed is the popularity."

From NPS (June 20):

Unmanned aircraft have already been prohibited at several national parks. These parks initiated bans after noise and nuisance complaints from park visitors, an incident in which park wildlife were harassed, and park visitor safety concerns.

Last September, an unmanned aircraft flew above evening visitors seated in the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Amphitheater. Park rangers concerned for visitors’ safety confiscated the unmanned aircraft.

In April, visitors at Grand Canyon National Park gathered for a quiet sunset, which was interrupted by a loud unmanned aircraft flying back and forth and eventually crashing in the canyon. Later in the month, volunteers at Zion National Park witnessed an unmanned aircraft disturb a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from young animals.


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. The associate director must approve any new special use permits authorizing the use of unmanned aircraft. Superintendents who have previously authorized the use of model aircraft for hobbyist or recreational use may allow such use to continue.

The National Park Service may use unmanned aircraft for administrative purposes such as search and rescue, fire operations and scientific study. These uses must also be approved by the associate director for Visitor and Resource Protection.

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