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Drones banned at all national parks

Visitors and workers on National Park Service land have encountered something unexpected when looking up to the skies -- drones.

Prompted by recent sightings in national parks, all types of unmanned aircraft were banned Friday from 84 million acres of National Park Service land and waters. Unmanned aircraft owners cannot launch, land or operate them.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis signed the policy memorandum, stating he has serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks.

“We are prohibiting their use until we can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience,” Jarvis wrote.

Unmanned aircraft had already been banned at a number of national parks because of noise, disturbances to wildlife and safety concerns, he wrote.

The director cited a number of incidents that contributed to his decision.

Last September, an unmanned aircraft flew above hundreds of visitors during a nighttime presentation at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial outdoor amphitheater. Park rangers confiscated that aircraft, fearing danger to guests.

The National Park Service is still investigating the circumstances of that incident and could not release any other details, said Mount Rushmore National Park spokeswoman Maureen McGee-Ballinger.

“Any given evening, up to 2,000 people can be in that ampitheater,” McGee-Ballinger said. “(The aircraft) could have fallen on one of them.”

In April, visitors at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona were interrupted by a loud unmanned aircraft, which eventually crashed into the canyon, according to the National Park Service.

Later in April, volunteers at Zion National Park in Utah saw an unmanned aircraft disturb a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from young animals.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said park employees have not seen unmanned aircraft pose threats to visitors or wildlife yet.

“We anticipate that it will be a problem down the line,” Naylor said. “They’re becoming very affordable for almost anybody.”

Jarvis stressed that the ban is a temporary measure. The park service will draft a more permanent set of regulations service-wide, he wrote.

Hobbyists may continue flying model airplanes at parks where they are allowed.

The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that 30,000 domestic drones will be in use in the U.S. in the next 20 years. North Dakota has become widely known as a drone hub, as the FAA selected Grand Forks as one of six national testing sites for researching unmanned aircraft’s integration into general airspace.