News Column

Private drones banned over Appalachian Trail, other National Park Service lands partly for safety reasons

August 20, 2014

By Matt Assad, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

Aug. 20--If you find the idea of unmanned drones buzzing around in the skies above you just a bit unsettling, well, the National Park Service is with you on that.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail has put hikers and hobbyists on notice that drones will not be permitted above trail lands, joining the nation's other 401 Park Service sites that include scenic lands from Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore to Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The policy took affect Wednesday, and a full ban will remain in place until the National Park Service decides where drones might be allowed, said Jeff Olson, Park Service spokesman.

Among the National Parks that may confiscate your drone if you try to fly in their airspace are the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Valley Forge National Historic Site and Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Somerset County.

"We've had some complaints and we really don't want these buzzing around bothering people," Olson said. "There are also safety concerns. If one of these crashes, someone could get hurt or even killed."

The ban comes after a June National Park Service directive ordered parks to have their policy in place by this week.

Wendy Janssen, superintendent of the Appalachian Trail, said she's got 31 trail clubs and 6,000 volunteers to help her enforce the ban along the 2,184-mile trail that snakes across the northern reach of the Lehigh and Northampton Counties.

"We haven't any issues to this point," Janssen said. "But it's a nationwide ban and we will enforce it."

With advancements in technology that make the unmanned aircraft less expensive and easier to fly, the use of drones has increased among hobbyists and photographers looking to get a birds-eye vantage of landscape without hopping into a plane or helicopter.

Last month, many of the more than 80 people who showed up at a demolition ceremony for the $325 million Waterfront project in Allentown, were momentarily startled when a drove buzzed overhead to film the event from the air.

"We were just looking for some good marketing footage,' said Zachary Jaindl, an executive in Waterfront Partners. "The drone footage was pretty cool. It really worked out well."

With journalists, hobbyists and even wedding photographers increasing the numbers of private drones in the sky, the FAA quickly adopted rules that primarily said drone use was permitted so long as they stayed away from airports, below 400 feet high and in clear sight of the remote-control operator. They also can't be used for commercial use -- in other words, the films or photos from the drones can't be sold.

But after a few less-than-comfortable incidents, the National Park Service decided that wasn't good enough. In fact Parks officials found that flying below 400 was part of the problem.

Last September a drone flew over the heads of nearly 2,000 visitors seated in the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Amphitheater in South Dakota, and in April volunteers at Zion National Park in Utah reported that a drone was harassing bighorn sheep, Olson said.

Earlier this month, a camera-equipped drone crashed into Yellowstone National Park's Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest of the park's geothermal springs and a top draw for tourists.

Olson added that they've also been seen flying close enough to distract climbers at Yosemite.

"We're not saying they can never been used, we're just saying time out until we look at this more closely," Olson said.

That will likely take 18 months, at which time the Park Service will designate areas where drones can be used.

For now, if a park ranger catches you flying above one of the 84 million acres of land run by the National Park Service, she can issue a citation ranging from $100 to $200. She may even seize your aircraft, Olson said. That's what rangers did at Mount Rushmore.

"The Park Service isn't against drones," Olson said. "But for some that use the National Park system, they can be a little unnerving. We're going to need some time to determine how to safely avoid that in the future."



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