Where you can or cannot fly a drone when it comes to United States public lands is a confusing topic with an answer that has to be pieced together by studying multiple government websites. Navigating the gauntlet of online information can be daunting but I'm here to help. In an article that I published a few weeks ago on Fstoppers, I included an image I captured with my DJI Phantom 4 Pro above White Pocket in northern Arizona. One of our readers commented that he thought it was illegal to fly a drone in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. In fact, it is not. If you are a drone owner, you are likely aware that you cannot take off or land from any public lands managed by the National Park Service.
Many National Monuments and other public lands are managed by the National Park Service, but the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is actually managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Since the Bureau of Land Management allows recreational drone use on most of the lands it manages, I was good to fly. Perhaps “allows” is the wrong thinking and it should be more like “they don’t restrict the use of.” Wouldn't it be nice if there was a hard and fast rule for all of us that says you cannot take off or land on public lands managed by the National Park Service, but you are free to fly on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management? Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that cut and dry. Spending a few minutes to better understand the rules can potentially save you from a big fine or even jail time. Let’s dig a little deeper.
A Brief Disclaimer
First things first, please be aware that what I am writing about only pertains to the recreational use of drones under United States public law 112-95 (section 336) and the Federal Aviation Administration’s interpretation of that law under 14 CFR Part 91. If you use drones (or small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, aka sUAS’s) for business purposes, those rules fall under Part 107 of the Federal Aircraft Regulations and are not covered here.
What are Public Lands
To help get your head around the situation, it is probably good to have a common understanding of what constitutes a United States public land. Public lands are land held in trust for the American people by the federal government and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the United States National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Department of the Interior, or the United States Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture. They fall into categories as defined by the U.S. Department of the Interior including National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, National Conservation Areas, National Monuments, Wilderness Areas, National Historic Sites, National Memorials, National Battlefields, National Recreation Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Seashores, National Lakeshores, National Preserves, National Cemeteries, and National Trails. The specific use of public lands varies but they are typically set aside for historical value, conservation, recreation, and livestock grazing. With few exceptions (e.g., the 1906 Antiquities Act/National Monuments Act), only Congress has the authority to create or acquire public lands.
As I discussed above, the challenge isn’t as simple as knowing which of these public lands are managed by the National Park Service and which are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. For example, National Forests are entirely managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Here’s another, some National Monuments are managed by the National Park Service and some are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. As if that isn't confusing enough, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers are managed by a four-agency coordinating council that includes the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service.
Don't Fly in National Park Service Managed Lands
So, let’s simplify things straight away since there is one rule of thumb for all of these areas that makes it somewhat easier to determine if it is okay to fly. That is, if the public land is managed by the National Park Service, you cannot take off or land from there. Some people will try to skirt the law by taking off and landing right outside the park boundary. In most cases, they rapidly fall into non-compliance because they will likely have to fly their bird outside of visual range, which is a no-no per the FAA interpretation. With this rule in mind, here’s a breakdown of the public lands that are completely or partially under National Park Service management:
1. National Parks – 60 of 60
2. National Forests – 0 of 154 (U.S. Forest Service)
3. National Wildlife Refuges – 0 of 562 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
4. National Conservation Areas – 0 of 16 (Bureau of Land Management)
5. National Monuments – 88 of 129 (41 under management of 5 other Federal agencies)
6. Wilderness Areas – 60 of 765 (705 under management of 3 other Federal agencies)
7. National Historic Sites – 78 of 89 (11 affiliated sites that may or may not be managed directly by the National Park Service)
8. National Memorials – 29 of 29 (5 affiliated sites that may or may not be managed directly by the National Park Service)
9. National Battlefields – 25 of 25
10. National Recreation Areas – 18 of 21 (3 under management by the U.S. Forest Service)
11. Wild and Scenic Rivers – 5 National Rivers and 10 Wild and Scenic Rivers
12. National Seashores – 10 of 10
13. National Lakeshores – 4 of 4
14. National Preserves – 21 of 21
15. National Reserves – 3 of 3
16. National Cemeteries – 14 of 147 (131 under management of U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and 2 under management of the U.S. Army)
17. National Trails – 23 of 23
Flying on Other Public Lands
The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service actually make it somewhat easy to figure out if recreational drone fight is allowed. They both have fundamentally deferred to the Federal Aviation Administration saying that the FAA has authority over all airspace. Local exceptions may be in place so if you see a park ranger, it is always a good idea to double check. Besides following the Federal Aviation Administration rules, these agencies also ask that you:
- Do not fly over congressionally designated Wilderness Areas or Primitive Areas as many people seek these places for the opportunities for solitude and quiet that they provide.
- Do not fly over or near wildlife as this can create stress that may cause significant harm, and even death. Intentional disturbance of animals during breeding, nesting, rearing of young, or other critical life history functions is not allowed unless approved by research or management.
- Follow state wildlife and fish agency regulations on the use of UAS to search for or detect wildlife and fish.
- Launch your UAS more than 100 meters (328 feet) from wildlife. Do not approach animals or birds vertically with your UAS.
- Never fly your UAS over or in close proximity to any fire (wildfire or prescribed) or search and rescue operation. UAS flights over fire operations disrupt aerial firefighting operations and create hazardous situations.
- Federal agencies regularly fly aircraft at low altitudes to perform natural resource management. It is the UAS Operator’s responsibility to be aware of these flights and take the steps necessary to avoid them. Contact the local Ranger District Office or the Federal Aviation Administration for scheduled flights in the area.
The United States government is very clear that taking off and landing from designated Wilderness Areas is forbidden since no mechanized equipment is permitted in those areas. Remember the White Pocket example that I started out with? Even though it is in a National Monument where flying is okay, it is also right on the edge of a designated Wilderness Area. I consulted more than one map before I flew just to be certain that I was in the clear. One nuance to know about this designation is that there is also a category of public land called a “Wilderness Study Area.” It has many of the same features as a Wilderness Area but has not been officially designated as such by Congress. Unless posted, you are permitted to take off an land from Wilderness Study Areas.
As for state and city parks, the rules for drones are really on a case-by-case basis. You should check their website and ask park officials before taking off. Don’t rely on “asking for forgiveness,” get permission first. If you don’t get an explicit “it’s okay to fly,” then keep your drone on the ground and just enjoy the scenery. If you are visiting public lands and are unsure of its status for any reason, I have the same advice, go to their website first. If you see the National Park Service badge on the page, you can be certain that you cannot fly there. Otherwise, as with local parks, ask an official if it is okay to take to the sky. There are also a number of apps that you should consider having on hand at all times that will help you know if an area is safe or not. The official one from the Federal Aviation Administration is called B4UFly. Many experienced drone pilots prefer apps such as AirMap or Hover to understand flight restrictions and other important information prior to taking off.
Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about whether you can legally fly your drone in public lands and hopefully I have clarified things for you. The other question you have to ask yourself is just because you can fly, should you fly? When the reader asked me about White Pocket, I made sure to tell them that even though I was permitted to fly I still did as much as I could to not impact others who were in the area. On that particular day, there was one couple and one individual camping in the parking area and I asked each of them if they would mind if I flew. I also drove over to a more distant parking area so that there would be less noise disturbance. And, I waited to fly until the sun was fairly high up so as not to bother anyone else who might be doing photography at sunrise. A little common sense and courtesy to others can go a long way towards making your flying experience more fun while helping to get folks more comfortable with our drones buzzing around in the sky.