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Can You Fly a Drone in Glacier National Park?

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Hidden away among the Rocky Mountains in Montana is Glacier National Park. The park spans over 1,500 square miles and includes natural valleys and peaks punctuated by the park’s namesake, glaciers!

You might wish to use your drone in this park, which is a gateway between the US and Canadian borders.

Can you fly a drone in Glacier National Park?

Drones are strictly prohibited in Glacier National Park as of 2014 according to the National Park Service unless you have a special use permit and written permission from the Associate Director, Visitor and Resource Protection.

In today’s article, we’ll more closely examine the drone flight rules at Glacier National Park.

We’ll also fill you in on everything you need to know about the park’s issuance of special use permits, so make sure you keep reading!

Can you fly a drone in Glacier National Park? #

Statista[1] says that, in 2021, Glacier National Park attracted 3.08 million visitors, which is practically an all-time high for the park.

Unsurprisingly, being such a popular place, the National Park Service has instituted plenty of policies and laws about what’s permitted and what isn’t at the park.

According to NPS[2] website, under the section entitled Unmanned Aircraft, “The public may not launch, land, or operate unmanned aircraft (aka remote piloted vehicles, or drones) in the national parks.” That includes Glacier National Park.

This is part of the NPS’s larger Policy Memorandum 14-05[3], which went into effect in June 2014 as drones became more popular than ever before. The NPS created the memorandum in response.

Policy Memorandum 14-05 is also noteworthy because it mentions exceptions to the NPS’s rules about operating a drone in Glacier National Park.

If you have written permission from the Associate Director, Visitor and Resource Protection or ADVRP and a special use permit, then you can use a drone in the following capacities per the memorandum:

“(b) Administrative use of unmanned aircraft as approved in writing by the ADVRP for such purposes as scientific study, search and rescue operations, fire operations, and law enforcement. Administrative use includes the use of unmanned aircraft by (i) NPS personnel as operators or crew; (ii) cooperators such as government agencies and universities that conduct unmanned aircraft operations for the NPS pursuant to a written agreement; and (iii) other entities, including commercial entities, conducting unmanned aircraft operations for the NPS, provided such entities are in compliance with all applicable FAA and Department of the Interior requirements…

(c) Activities conducted under a Scientific Research and Collecting Permit that specifically authorizes launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft and is approved in writing by the ADVRP in consultation with the Associate Director for Natural Resources Stewardship and Science.

(d) Activities conducted under a special use permit that specifically authorizes launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft and is approved in writing by the ADVRP.” 

Special use permits at Glacier National Park – Who gets ‘em and how #

Let’s talk more about the special use permits or SUPs as outlined in Policy Memorandum 14-05, as they’re the only way to ever operate a drone in Glacier National Park.

While it appears that recreational and commercial pilots alike can apply for a SUP, it’s ultimately at the discretion of the NPS’s superintendents who will or will not be approved.

The memorandum specifically states that these superintendents “must use their professional judgment to adequately evaluate the appropriateness of the requested activities and determine whether they will result in unacceptable impacts to park resources and values.”

In doing so, a superintendent must ask whether flying a drone will violate FAA rules, “cause injury or damage to park resources,” and go against the park purposes “or unacceptably impact the atmosphere of peace and tranquility maintained in wilderness, natural, historic, or commemorative locations within the park.”

The request for a SUP must also not get in the way of program activities or visitor services offered at Glacier National Park, “present a clear and present danger to public health and safety,” or “result in significant conflict with other existing uses.”

If your request for a SUP does warrant superintendent approval, the superintendent will work with the ADVRP to determine which drone activities are permitted in the SUP and which aren’t. You’ll receive all the terms and conditions with your SUP proposal.

For example, the superintendent and ADVRP must create safety lines that discern non-flight and flight areas, enforce restrictions on the times of day a pilot can fly, and even require mufflers for flying devices.

Further, pilots will be expected to announce when they launch and land a drone as well as if an emergency occurs. They may need to carry first aid kits as well, and their drones will be subjected to weight and size restrictions.

The superintendent and ADVRP also require all permitted pilots to follow these rules:

  • Pilots must have “sufficient liability insurance or proof of membership in an organization such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) which includes insurance coverage with membership.”
  • A drone flying in Glacier National Park must always be within a pilot’s line of visual sight.
  • Pilots are prohibited from flying a drone over structures, vehicles, vessels, and people in a way that can endanger property or lives.
  • “Inexperienced unmanned aircraft operators must be accompanied and assisted by an experienced operator.”
  • Pilots cannot operate a drone when under the influence of substances such as drugs and/or alcohol.
  • The drone must be flown within the safety lines and never in a reckless fashion.
  • Pilots cannot interrupt NPS emergency operations such as law enforcement or search and rescue.
  • Drones cannot be used to harass or disturb wildlife in Glacier National Park.

What happens if you fly a drone in Glacier National Park without a permit? #

The NPS is a federal entity, so violating its drone flight rules in Glacier National Park would mean breaking federal laws.

While you can fly your drone just outside of the park because those lands are not under the NPS’s jurisdiction, otherwise, don’t be mistaken. If you don’t have a SUP and written permission to use your drone in Glacier National Park, you’re flying illegally.

Considering that the NPS makes its rules about drone flights in Glacier National Park quite clear, there’s little room to claim a misunderstanding such as not seeing posted signs.

That’s going to lead to many legal headaches for you, both right this moment and likely months down the line as well.

For starters, you will be fined. The amount can vary, usually based on criteria such as the severity of the crime and your criminal background, if you have one. Expect a fine of at least a few hundred dollars but possibly more.

Then there’s the risk of imprisonment. The sentences start with as little as 30 days behind bars, but you could be jailed for six months as well. You may be only fined or fined and imprisoned.

Even spending a month in jail can majorly shake up your life, as you’d have to miss work for that long. When your boss finds out why, you might not have a job to return back to.

All in all, it’s not worth flying in Glacier National Park or any national park without the correct permissions and permits!

Glacier National Park is a major destination, as it’s home to Hidden Lake, over 700 miles of trails, and plenty of wildlife, including grizzly bears.

The National Park Service outlaws drone pilots from using their UAVs in Glacier National Park unless they have a special use permit and written permission.

The issuance of a permit is usually based on a pilot’s proposed activity, so not every application will be granted.

Remember, you could be fined heavily and possibly face months of imprisonment for violating the rules at Glacier National Park.

Either get the permit you need or find another place to fly!

References:1. Glacier National Park visitors (link)2. U.S. National Park Service (link)3. Policy Memorandum 14-05 (link)


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