While the drone crash in Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring could prove to be devastating, it’s not the only item that has found its way into the park’s famed thermal features, such as these at Old Faithful. ©Travis J. Andrews

Anyone who has visited Yellowstone National Park can attest to the beauty of Grand Prismatic Spring, a body of water that has a deep, brilliant blue color at its center and measures 370 feet in diameter. The pool is also recognized around the world for its other stunning tints, produced by the bright, multihued algae and bacteria around its edges. Since Yellowstone was declared America’s first national park in 1872, thermal features such as this have been protected for our enjoyment and that of future generations.

But on August 2, 2014, a tourist from the Netherlands, Theodorus Van Vliet, crashed his drone into the spring. This incident occurred despite a ban that was instituted on June 20, 2014, on all UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in all National Park Service-controlled lands and waters.

Officials have yet to determine what damage may have been caused to Grand Prismatic Spring because of the sunken drone. But given the trauma and desecration this incident has surely inflicted on one of our most cherished natural wonders, is it time to establish tighter security in our national parks?

Bighorn sheep have been victims of UAV harassment. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Drone damage

Leading up to the ban on drones in national parklands earlier this year was a string of bad behavior by drone operators since this type of personal aircraft became a popular and widespread photography tool. For example, in May 2014, a UAV was spotted near several, young bighorn sheep in Zion National Park, causing them to get separated from the adults in the herd. Such disconnection from older animals could cause the young to die.

Even after the ban was put in place, negligent conduct by drone operators continued to occur. On July 17, 2014, a German visitor crashed a drone into Yellowstone Lake and then gave a false report to a government official. And on August 19, 2014, an Oregon man flew a drone over Midway Geyser and near bison.

How to remedy the August 2, 2014, Grand Prismatic Spring incident remains unclear. The landmark is the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world. What further damage could be caused to it by leaving the drone there or by taking it out is still unknown. Either option could change the 121-foot-deep pool forever.

Yosemite banned drones in 2014 for “ruining the experience for visitors with their noise, interfering with rescue operations and endangering wildlife.” ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Breathtaking photography

Despite the irksomeness of noisy drones and some incapable operators, it can’t be denied that UAVs have given us some outstanding and breathtaking views of our natural wonders. A new class of amateur, aerial videographers has enabled us to see a gorgeous world we may not otherwise ever be able to witness. Drones, it could be argued, are much like cell phones and tablets: just another tool to realize artistic expression. The National Park Service itself has allowed unmanned aircraft on a limited basis for remote research projects in California’s Mojave National Preserve, in Hawaii’s national parks and in Washington’s Olympic National Park.

And to be fair, drones aren’t the only items that find their way into the hot springs of Yellowstone. According to park officials, visitors often use such natural features as wishing wells or even garbage cans, throwing coins and trash into the springs.

“In nature photography, remote cameras should be used with caution,” says Natural Habitat Adventures head naturalist and Expedition Leader Eric Rock. “When animals are allowed to come into contact with photography equipment that is left unattended or when unmanned equipment is used irresponsibly, the level of respect between humans and wildlife breaks down. Eventually, things like leaving a GoPro set up and unguarded might have to be outlawed, as well.”


The National Park Service allows drones on a limited basis for remote research projects in Hawaii’s national parks, such as Haleakala National Park.

I, for one, would hate to see the entrances to our national parks become like airport security checkpoints, with searches of our cars and inspections of our picnic baskets. On the other hand, I’m not sure people can be trusted to resist the urge to send their cameras into national park airspace to get those once-in-a-lifetime shots of the natural beauty that called them to the parks in the first place.

Do you think we need tighter security in our national parks to protect our natural wonders, wildlife, and ourselves from drones?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,