As you visit some state and local parks throughout the United States, you’re bound to come across what are referred to as Wilderness Areas. The separate designation from the rest of the park might give you pause about proceeding.
Can you fly your drone in a Wilderness Area?
Drones are strictly prohibited from flying in Wilderness Areas, which comprise 111.7 million acres of land across the United States. The ban has been in effect since 1964 when the Wilderness Act was passed.
In this guide, we’ll explain what constitutes a Wilderness Area and further explain why you can’t fly there and what happens if you try.
Make sure you check it out!
What is a Wilderness Area, anyway?
Okay, so first things first. What exactly is a Wilderness Area?
A Wilderness Area is a designated area that’s federally protected by the United States National Wilderness Preservation System or NWPS. The area can be wildlands or wilderness per the NWPS.
At current, the US has 803 Wilderness Areas throughout the country, says the USDA, which altogether comprise approximately 111.7 million acres of land.
To become a Wilderness Area, the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and possibly other agencies will submit a request to Congress.
Congress decides on the inclusion of each new Wilderness Area on an individual basis.
More so than just approving the request (if Congress chooses to do so), Congress also has the power to determine how much land and which parts of the land will constitute the Wilderness Area.
In the Wilderness Act, which we’ll discuss more in the next section, a variety of criteria are outlined for land to be considered a Wilderness Area.
Generally, the land has to possess some historical, scenic, educational, or scientific value. The area must also be 5,000 acres or larger and federally managed and owned.
How do you determine where a Wilderness Area is?
We can’t possibly list all 803 Wilderness Areas in the US, but some examples include:
- Apache Kid in Cibola National Forest
- Bay Creek in Shawnee National Forest
- Eagletail Mountains in the Arizona BLM Colorado River District
- Nelson Mountain in the Manti-La Sal National Forest
- Rainbow Lake in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest
While national forests are a popular place for Wilderness Areas, these areas are not exclusive to national forests alone.
How in the world do you find all the Wilderness Areas in the US then?
We’d recommend a handy tool like Wilderness Connect, which outlines every Wilderness Area in the country.
You can zoom in on the map and select a Wilderness Area in your state or you can search for one.
Either way, Wilderness Connect provides handy information on each Wilderness Area so you can learn what it’s called and where it is.
Are you allowed to fly a drone in a Wilderness Area?
We said we’d go back to the Wilderness Act, and now we will. Passed in 1964, you might remember the Wilderness Act in our guide on Wildlife Management Areas and whether you could fly in those.
Since we talked about the Wilderness Act already, we won’t go overly in-depth, but the act prohibits drone pilots from flying in Wilderness Areas.
You see, at the time of the creation of the Wilderness Act and even about a decade before, industrialization was happening at a rapid rate.
There was concern that the creatures that inhabit our planet would have nowhere safe to go with time.
All Wilderness Areas, according to the Wilderness Act, prohibit motorized human activities. That doesn’t only include drone flights but driving or using any other motorized vehicles.
That said, Wilderness Areas do welcome human traffic for activities deemed as non-motorized recreation like horseback riding, fishing, hunting, camping, or backpacking.
You’re also allowed to engage in activities that are non-invasive as well as scientific research.
Since Wilderness Areas are for animals and other living creatures first and foremost, human visitors must follow the Leave No Trace rules before they go.
In other words, it should be like they were never there.
This means removing any garbage, waste, or other byproducts that might have been created during one’s time in the Wilderness Area.
The land should be undisturbed, and the animals as well!
Only one state allows for motorized vehicle use in designated Wilderness Areas despite the rules of the Wilderness Act, and that’s Alaska.
However, the use is only when building aquaculture and cabins and does not include drones. Motorized vehicles are used sparingly as well.
Could Wilderness Areas expand?
As of current, Wilderness Areas only encompass the US, but there’s no telling whether it will be like that forever.
Mexico, Canada, and the US entered an agreement together in 2009 which is known as the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation for Wilderness Conservation.
Through that agreement came about the North American Intergovernmental Committee on Cooperation for Wilderness and Protected Areas Conservation. The entity was created to allow international agencies to freely communicate about preserving wilderness all over the world.
However, in the more than 10 years since the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation for Wilderness Conservation came to be, it doesn’t appear that Wilderness Areas have expanded.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t ever happen, but it hasn’t as of yet.
What happens if you fly a drone in a Wilderness Area?
The goal of a Wilderness Area isn’t merely to give live creatures a safe refuge away from the industrialization of today’s rapidly growing society. It’s also to safeguard endangered and threatened animal species.
Drones and animals can sometimes peacefully coexist, but more often than not, they cannot. For that reason alone, you shouldn’t want to venture into a Wilderness Area with your drone.
Let’s assume it happens by accident. What would result?
Well, you’ll recall that Wilderness Areas are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service.
Many of these are federal entities, which means that your crime would be at a federal level. That’s quite severe.
Depending on what the state and local laws are for the Wilderness Area in the state you disturb, you could also break those laws as well.
In our article on Wildlife Management Areas, we mentioned that the Wilderness Act doesn’t specify any punishment.
Based on the severity of the crime though, you’re likely to have your drone confiscated. You could be punished and even put behind bars for months or up to a year, perhaps even longer.
You could be barred from accessing Wilderness Areas for life, even if you wouldn’t use a drone there again.
Since it’s a federal crime to fly a drone in a Wilderness Area, you could even have your drone privileges revoked in some instances.
Know the Wilderness Areas near you before you go so you’re not caught off-guard.
Certainly, never look for any loopholes in the Wilderness Act. There are some grandfathered rules that allow motorized vehicles in, but not for commercial or recreational drone flight, so just don’t try it.
Wilderness Areas are protected lands throughout the US for animals both threatened and nonthreatened to exist without much interaction with people and certainly without any distractions or disturbances from humankind.
With more than 800 of them as of this writing, the chances are pretty good that there’s a Wilderness Area near you. If not, then perhaps some of the places you frequent with your drone might have a Wilderness Area.
Either way, take heed and avoid flying in a Wilderness Area. Motorized vehicles like drones are prohibited for the wellbeing of the animals.
National and state parks alike sometimes allow drone pilots permitted areas to fly. Stick within those areas and you won’t have to worry about breaking federal laws.