Crater Lake, Oregon's only national park, in 2016.

Crater Lake, Oregon’s only national park, in 2016.

Mark Schuster/U.S. Department of the Interior

Drones are causing big problems at Crater Lake National Park.

It’s illegal to operate a drone in all national parks — and has been since 2014. But in recent years, rangers are getting more reports of people flying drones in the skies above Oregon’s only national park, Crater Lake. Chief ranger Kean Mihata told “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller that during the park’s busy summer months, rangers get five to seven reports of illegal drone use every week. 

Here are four things to know about drones in national parks:

1. Drones are more than an annoyance. They can be dangerous.

In addition to disturbing wildlife with their loud buzzing, drones can be a hazard, Mihata said. Drones have fallen out of the sky and into the park on several occasions. At least once, a drone fell into a campsite filled with people, Mihata said. Though no one has been hit by a falling drone yet, Mihata said, rangers are concerned that people could be injured.

“It can be a big hazard for the people that they’re flying over,” Mihata said.

The drones have also fallen into the park’s caldera, Mihata said. Rangers have had to retrieve the fallen aircraft by rappelling down into the caldera using ropes.

2. Laws about drone use vary from agency to agency.

Mihata believes that some of the people operating drones in Crater Lake National Park simply do not know it’s illegal. Regulations on drones in the park vary depending on which agency manages the park.

“Every agency seems to have their own rules on the use of drones,” Mihata said.

Though some of Oregon’s larger state parks don’t allow drone use, people are permitted to fly drones in some state parks. And people are allowed to use drones in most national forests.

3. You could face a fine of $5,000 and six months in jail for operating a drone at Crater Lake.

That’s the maximum penalty for flying a drone in a national park. When a drone is reported, law enforcement rangers respond to try to determine who is flying the drone.

Rangers can give a warning about drone use instead of imposing a fine or recommending criminal charges, Mihata said, but it depends on the situation.

4. Drones represent just one way that technology is changing the job of a park ranger.

During the nearly two decades that Mihata has worked as a park ranger, he’s seen how changing technology has affected rangers.

The increased access to cell phones and better cell reception in the park means that people make more 911 calls about non-emergencies, Mihata said. A decade ago, rangers might not have gotten a call about a minor injury, but it’s more common that they will respond to smaller calls like that now.

To hear more from “Think Out Loud’s” conversation with Kean Mihata, click the play”button at the top of the page.

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