Unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones, are now banned within the boundaries of the Buffalo National River, along with all other national parks across the country.
Teri Gage, commercial services manager with the Buffalo National River, said that although the park has received several informal complaints over the past year about drones via the park's Facebook page, no one has been arrested or charged for operating the devices inside the park.
Gage said park administrators are concerned about visitors' safety, as well as their overall experience at the river.
"People come here expecting to have more of a wilderness experience, or at least a peaceful outdoor experience," Gage said. "They don't expect to have this intrusion of low-flying aircraft."
"There's also issues of park wildlife," Gage said. "Are people going to be harassing the elk in Boxley Valley when they're trying to get video or photographs using a drone? We want the wildlife to be protected from that kind of intrusion as well."
In June, National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis issued a policy memorandum directing national park superintendents to insert language into their park compendiums that prohibits the launching, landing and operation of unmanned aircraft in national parks.
National Park System spokesman Jeffrey Olson said the memorandum came after a stream of complaints were filed by park visitors across the country. He described the directive as a "timeout," during which National Park Service administrators will determine how and where drones will be allowed within the park system.
"New activities, like flying unmanned aircraft, are generally not allowed in national parks until we get to take a look at them to see where they're appropriate," Olson said. "We do think that unmanned aircraft are going to be appropriate in certain national parks. But buzzing bighorn sheep in Zion National Park? Not appropriate."
Olson said similar technology, such as radio-controlled model airplanes, is allowed in many areas of many parks, including Lake Mead in Arizona and Nevada, and Gateway National Recreational Area in New York and New Jersey.
Buffalo National River chief ranger Karen Bradford said fines for violating Regulation 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which in part bans drones in national parks, can range from $75 to $500, and can result in up to six months of imprisonment.
Airspace jurisdiction over national parks is a gray regulatory area. Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration's Mid-States region, said that while the FAA is responsible for the entire National Airspace System, the National Park Service does have the authority to decide whether drones are allowed to take off and land within park boundaries.
"All airspace within the United States, whether it's a national park, a state park or just open area, falls within the National Airspace System. All aircraft, regardless of size, require some level of FAA approval to operate," Lunsford said in an email Wednesday. "There are some specific restrictions for flying above and through the Grand Canyon, but other than that, the airspace above a park carries the same rules as the rest of the country."
According to federal regulations, any aircraft flying in congested areas must fly at least 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle and stay at least 2,000 feet away from major obstacles. In noncongested areas, aircraft must fly at least 500 feet above the highest obstacle, and stay at least 500 feet from obstacles.
Drones have occasionally caused problems for state and federal law enforcement officials during official operations. Arkansas Forestry Commission spokesman Adriane Barnes said that during the search for downed commission pilot Jake Harrell in February, Arkansas Air National Guard helicopter pilots reported several drones getting dangerously close to their aircraft, as civilians sought to help search for Harrell.
Barnes said that routine fire detection flights over National Forest lands are far higher than those a drone can reach, but drones can endanger planes delivering water or fire retardants over a forest fire.
Olson estimated that the National Park Service rulemaking regarding drones in parks will take 12-18 months, and they may be useful in wilderness areas for managers of state and federal lands at some point.
The FAA requires that drone operators on the ground maintain eye contact with their drones at all times, something that's impossible in the mountainous and heavily treed Ozark and Ouachita mountains. But, Arkansas State Forester Joe Fox said that although drones are not currently used in Arkansas to watch for fires and other problems, forest services in other states are using them for fire detection.
"It's inoperable now, but drones are coming," Fox said. "Exactly when they'll get here, as far as fire protection, I'm not sure. But I can see some drones in our fire protection future here."
Metro on 07/31/2014
Print Headline: No drones allowed in national parks