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No Fly Zone: Drones in Yellowstone

Story and photos by Erik Petersen

The footage is striking. Tiny dots of red, yellow, and green kayaks floating down the White Salmon River in Washington. It’s shot directly from above; a true bird’s eye view.

Nick Wolcott, a professional photographer and drone pilot, captured the footage with his Cinestar Octocopter and a Canon 5D for Patagonia’s “Damnation” film. That footage could not be re-created today. The National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration are cracking down on the use of drones, and photographers have a lot to lose.

An aerial photograph, taken from a GoPro attached to a drone, shows a grain elevator in southwest Montana. Drones have become popular with photographers for uses varying from weddings to real estate because of the unique perspective offered.
An aerial photograph, taken from a GoPro attached to a drone, shows a grain elevator in southwest Montana. Drones have become popular with photographers for uses varying from weddings to real estate because of the unique perspective offered.

The NPS issued a parks-wide ban on unmanned aircrafts after drones crashed into Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring and Yellowstone Lake in the summer of 2014. Yellowstone National Park spokesman Al Nash said the rule was needed to protect visitors, wildlife, and the park’s natural icons.

The FAA issued a ban on commercial drone use in 2007, but never went through official rule-making channels to actually make it illegal. It has only recently begun to develop regulations and exceptions.

That ambiguity created a wild-west atmosphere for commercial drone users. Everyone from wedding photographers to real estate and landscape photographers was turning to the skies.

“There are plenty of people making an awful lot of money flying drones,” said Peter Sachs, a lawyer, drone pilot, and First Amendment advocate. “They are just keeping their heads down to avoid any kind of confrontation with the FAA.”

Richard O'Haire, a hobby drone pilot, flies his machine in a field in southwest Montana. The FAA says drones are legal to fly, providing it is not for commercial use.
Richard O’Haire, a hobby drone pilot, flies his machine in a field in southwest Montana. The FAA says drones are legal to fly, providing it is not for commercial use.

Journalists are no exception.

“Let’s say I want to fly recreationally and film a protest that is going on, that is fine,” Sachs said. “But if you are a journalist working for station WXYZ, then that is illegal because you are getting paid.”

Sachs recommends keeping a low profile and being a responsible user to avoid the FAA.

Of course, journalists can still use helicopters to get the aerial footage they need. But it is far more expensive, less safe, and less capable.

“Some of the footage I was shooting this morning, you just couldn’t do with a helicopter,” Wolcott said while on assignment for BBC at Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. The area features sandstone goblins and unique natural formations.

He described how he circled his Octocopter from high in the sky, swooping dramatically down to ground level, and then smoothly cruising right through the gaps in the goblins.

“It just made for some incredible shots.”

Erik Petersen has been photographing life in Montana and around the world for 15 years. His work is at erikpetersen.photoshelter.com.