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Park service ban on drones in Alaska parks fixes problem that doesn't exist

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

Let's hear it for the National Park Service saving Alaska's nearly non-existent park visitors from the scourge of wholly non-existent drones.

All 11 people who visited the Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve sans drones last June can now stand up and applaud National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis for protecting them from aerial threats.

Nevermind that 11 people amounts to maybe a couple groups of packrafters floating from the Aniakchak Caldera to Aniakchak Bay, and that the non-existent access to this 601,000-acre park unit in Western Alaska makes it difficult to pack a drone in there.

The most common drone being flow in the 49th state appears to be one of the various four-bladed quadcopters made by DJI. They weigh more than 5 pounds packed up in the protective case a rafter would need to keep the device alive when it isn't flying.

That might not seem like much, but when you have to carry it on your back in a place where food and fuel are far more important, and help is a long way off, it's a lot.

'Swarm of bees'

This quadcopter, by the way, makes about as much noise as your hairdryer. You can listen to it here, where testers describe the noise as  "like the buzzing of a swarm of bees."

God forbid a group of paddlers would go the trouble to fly one of these over themselves, and shoot some great aerial footage of their adventure that might encourage someone else to come visit Aniakchak, or any of the other unvisited Alaska parks for that matter.

Aniakchak saw 134 visitors last year, according to the Park Service, but that was a giant increase from the total of 19 in 2012. Yes, you read that right. This national park was visited by 19 people in all of 2012.

Now, there's some serious wilderness protection on the part of the park service. There were more people roaming around out there in Western Alaska during the gold rushes of the 1900s. And low visitation isn't unique to Aniakchak.

Giant parks nobody visits

Eight of the 15 national park service units in Alaska, which all told cover an area of about the size of the state of Missouri, attracted fewer than 20,000 visitors last year. Even the world famous Katmai National Park and Preserve saw only 28,966 visitors for the entire year.

Twenty-nine thousand visitors is a busy day at Yosemite National Park in California. The daily average in the summer season is around 20,000. That's daily. Yosemite is big business.

Alaska is diddly-squat, and to think the Alaska Region of the National Park Service likes to promote its contribution to the Alaska economy.

Not to make light of that claimed $1 billion in business -- it's better than nothing -- but what we basically have going on in the north in modern times is a drive to turn most of Alaska into a giant park nobody visits, or sees only from the deck of a cruise ship or the seat of a bus. The latter is great for Outside-based tour companies, but doesn't do much to provide jobs in the 49th state.

And yes, it might make sense to ban drones along the Denali Park Road, which does attract a significant number of tourists, a few whom might be upset about seeing a little piece of technology flying in the sky.

Elsewhere? Maybe the Park Service ought to be promoting quadcopter flights: "Come fly your drone in the wilds of Alaska where there's no one for it to bother!"

Alaska is one of only six states the Federal Aviation Administration has approved for drone testing. The park service could try to promote this effort instead of hamper it.

What about a park service contest to reward the best drone video of an Alaska park?  Maybe someone could create something that would make tourists want to come visit because tourism in the 49th state remains pretty much small potatoes despite the talk about booming Alaska tourism.

Alaska is visited by a couple million people a year. Guess how many tourists visit those rocks far out in the Pacific Ocean called "Hawaii"? More than 8 million.

Hawaii can only be reached by flying a jet across the Pacific Ocean, and yet it attracts more than four times as many visitors as Alaska, which is connected by road to the rest of America. Unfortunately, Americans -- who love to drive -- appear to be driving elsewhere to vacation. More than 235 million to California. About 95 million to Florida. More than 27 million to Louisiana. For what? To sweat in the swamps?

Enter Jarvis, who should know a thing or two about the problem Alaska faces in attracting visitors to its national parks. He served as the superintendent of the largest of those parks -- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the world's largest national park -- for five years from 1994 to 1999.

Wrangell-St. Elias covers 13.2 million acres. It’s bigger than Switzerland. Most of it never sees a visitor. Drones aren't disturbing anyone there. The only noise problem, if there is a noise problem, might come with the gunfire when hunting season opens in the fall.

Ban loud backpacking stoves?

Maybe the park service could require the subsistence hunters in the park, and the citizen hunters in the preserve, to fit their firearms with silencers so as not to disturb anyone, because hunting season starts during the park's busiest month: August. August last year saw 22,008 visitors, more than a quarter of 70,000 for the entire year.

This is equivalent to the aforementioned average summer day in Yosemite, a little pipsqueak of a park covering less than 748,000 acres.

Yosemite is one-seventeenth the size of Wrangell-St. Elias and attracts about 53 times as many visitors. Yosemite is also one of those parks to which the park service is trying to attract visitors because visitation is declining there, too. Yosemite peaked in the mid-1990s and declined precipitously in the new millennium. It started rising early in the last decade, but has been falling since the start of this one.

Still, there were about 3.7 million visitors to Yosemite last year. The entire national park system in Alaska -- which comprises more than half the land in the national park system -- attracted 2.5 million visitors in 2013.

A ban on drones in Yosemite makes sense. An Alaska-wide ban on drones is a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that doesn't exist. If the park service wants to impose a useful ban on something in the 49th state, how about outlawing MSR XGK-EX backpacking stove. It makes way too much noise.

"It kind of sounds like a jet engine once its running,'' says reviewer Dan Putkowski.

At the very least, couldn't the park service require Mount McKinley climbers who plan to use one of those noisy stoves to wear hearing protection? There are probably climbers on the slopes of North America's tallest peak today risking the possibility of going deaf thanks to that roaring jet melting snow for water.

Aren't they more important than the Alaska wildlife the few visitors to Alaska's national parks haven't harassed? Wildlife harassment was, of course, one of the issue raised by the park service in saying drones needed to be banned everywhere.

There was "an incident in which park wildlife were harassed,'' the park service press release says.

It didn't happen in Alaska. And if it did, park rangers could use the state law against harassing wildlife to cite the drone owner. The state has pretty stringent laws against harassing wildlife.

Too bad there's no law against the park service harassing Alaskans.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.