Our Parks On The Air (POTA) community has experienced exponential growth since my introduction to POTA activations in 2019. Today, POTA boasts over 500,000 participants, including both hunters and activators.
Gone are the days of awkwardly explaining our hobby to park staff who were unfamiliar with amateur radio, let alone park activations. Nowadays, when I approach park staff for permission to operate, they often direct me to areas where other POTA activators have set up in the past, showcasing a growing acceptance and understanding of our community.
Goal: Positive Impact
With such a large and expanding community, we have the potential to significantly impact our park systems positively. It is crucial for POTA activators to not only leave a positive impression with park staff but also actively support and contribute to the well-being of our parks.
However, recent conversations with park rangers and staff from three different sites between June and November last year prompted me to share these insights. While acknowledging that interactions with POTA activators are generally positive, all three shared some concerns and criticisms.
I was surprised, in one case, that they hadn’t banned POTA activators from their site entirely. (I detail two examples at the end of this article.)
I imagine each and every one of these park rangers has had more negative interactions with the general public, but we POTA activators and amateur radio operators are a cohesive community that they lump into one group for better or for worse.
For instance, while a rowdy family gathering might disrupt the peace in a park, it doesn’t lead to a ban on families. However, repeated negative interactions involving POTA activators could result in our exclusion from parks or even escalation to wider park networks since many individual parks are tied to state, provincial, or national park systems.
Indeed, this has already happened at National Wildlife Refuges in Virginia. Check out the following message posted to Facebook this week from John (AB0O) who is a US mapping volunteer for POTA:
Time to be a positive force!
As John states in his message above, it’s time for us to proactively become ambassadors for POTA and good stewards of our parks and public lands.
I could have easily titled this post, “Ask not what your park can do for you; ask what you can do for your park!”
Let’s delve into some simple suggestions that I personally follow. This list is not exhaustive, so I invite you to share your strategies for promoting POTA positively in the comments below.
1. Obtain permission before operating
Despite the temptation to activate first and ask questions later, it’s essential to seek permission before setting up your station in a park. Some parks may require written permission for activations, regardless of the setup’s profile or impact (remember Leo’s recent field report?).
While most POTA sites allow activations as long as park rules are followed and other visitors aren’t disturbed, it’s prudent to confirm with park staff or experienced activators when in doubt.
In my experience, asking for permission is particularly crucial in parks with historical or ecological significance and limited facilities.
A piece of advice: When seeking permission, showcase your most portable, low-profile radio gear to help park staff understand the minimal impact of your setup. Over the years, this approach has resulted in successful activations for me, with only one instance of declined permission, primarily due to supervisor unavailability.
2. Choose inconspicuous locations
When setting up your station, avoid obstructing viewsheds or high-traffic areas within the park. Instead, opt for spots away from major attractions or foot traffic, ensuring minimal disruption to other visitors’ experiences.
Most POTA sites offer designated picnic or parking areas that are suitable for activations without interfering with scenic views. When uncertain, seek guidance from park staff to identify suitable locations.
3. Default to low-impact, low-profile gear
Unless you know in advance that a park allows wires in trees, stakes in the ground, or other antenna support structures, default to your most portable, low-profile, low-impact field setup.
Unless explicitly permitted, refrain from deploying antennas in trees or using stakes that could damage park grounds.
I believe every POTA activator should possess a compact, self-supporting antenna system to minimize environmental impact. Additionally, consider operating from your vehicle if uncertain about setup requirements.
An NC State Park ranger told me last fall, “I like to see POTA activators that aren’t taking up a lot of space and yelling at their radio.”
Let’s not be the guy or gal he described!
4. Leave No Trace
Adhering to the principles of Leave No Trace is paramount during POTA activations and other outdoor adventures. Always dispose of trash properly and, if at all possible, pick up any litter you encounter at your operating site. My goal is to always leave the site cleaner and tidier than I found it.
In my backpack and car, I keep small litter bags along with nitrile gloves so that I can pick up and dispose of any trash I find.
Over the years I’ve operated POTA, park rangers and game wardens have caught me in the act of collecting trash and thanked me. I made a point of telling them that I’m an amateur radio operator doing a POTA activation. I feel like this can only leave a positive impression in their minds and help future activators who might seek permission to operate at a particular site.
Want to go a step further? Consider organizing group clean-up events with your amateur radio club. This collaborative effort not only benefits the park but also strengthens park and community ties.
5. Support your park financially
Show your appreciation for park access by contributing financially, especially at smaller locations with visitor centers or donation boxes. Whether purchasing items from the gift shop or making direct donations, your support is invaluable in maintaining park facilities and programs.
For instance, during a recent visit to a historic site, I made a point to purchase items from the gift shop and donate to the park.
The park rangers thanked me and noted that another frequent POTA activator also donates a bit of money or buys something in the shop each time he visits. They pointed out how much they appreciate that type of support.
While I usually prefer inconspicuous contributions, I intentionally inform park staff of my status as a POTA activator during these interactions. This transparency reinforces the positive image of amateur radio operators as park supporters.
6. Respect park operating hours
Ensure that your activations align with park operating hours to avoid overstaying your welcome. Familiarize yourself with park schedules and plan your activities accordingly to minimize disruptions and inconvenience to park staff.
I learned this lesson firsthand during an activation at Lake Norman State Park in 2021, where I unintentionally extended my stay past park closing hours. This happened during the week they shifted from more liberal summer hours, to winter hours. I was apologetic to park staff. Since then, I make a conscious effort to wrap up my activities well before closing time and communicate my intentions with park staff if I feel like I might cut it a bit close.
Be a POTA Ambassador
By following basic guidelines like these, POTA activators can cultivate positive relationships with park staff and demonstrate our commitment to responsible outdoor recreation.
As POTA Ambassadors, let’s engage with park staff, address any concerns they may have, and showcase the respectful conduct of our community. Listening to their feedback and acknowledging past issues can help mitigate negative perceptions and foster mutual understanding.
During a visit to a new-to-me urban park last year, I proactively sought permission to operate, considering the site’s limited space and popularity among POTA activators. Park staff appreciated my courtesy and expressed gratitude for my considerate approach.
Our conversation revealed previous negative experiences involving POTA activators. These included instances where operators failed to comply with park rules and even exhibited disruptive behavior. For example:
- One operator tried to set up an antenna by tying a short 2×4 to fishing line and attempting to throw it into a tree. However, this park prohibits the use of trees for antenna support, and his “method” was causing damage to small branches. When asked to refrain from using the tree, the operator became confrontational, insisting on his ‘legal right’ to do so. Despite the staff’s polite explanation of the park rules, the operator angrily packed up and left.
- Another incident involved a mobile activator who parked his truck in the park’s small lot, occupying three parking spaces, while deploying a hitch-mounted vertical. With a public event underway and all parking spaces occupied, park guests raised complaints. Despite staff requests to reposition his truck to free up space, the activator responded angrily, rolled up his window, operated for a few minutes, and then departed.
Despite these incidents, the staff emphasized that they were exceptions rather than the rule. They mentioned several regular activators whom they enjoy interacting with during their visits. Undoubtedly, these individuals serve as POTA ambassadors, exemplifying our community’s respect for parks and public lands.
Privilege and Responsibility
While our tax dollars support public lands, park staff retain the authority to regulate activities that may impact park ecosystems or visitor experiences.
The recent notice regarding National Wildlife Refuges in Virginia serves as a reminder of this privilege and responsibility.
Let’s strive to represent POTA activators positively and proactively contribute to our parks’ well-being. Together, we can ensure that future generations continue to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of our public lands.
What are your strategies? Please share your tips and advice in the comments section!