It’s been a long time coming, but the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration are finally taking steps to restrict air tours over a handful of America’s national parks and tribal lands.
The action is nearly two decades in the making. Although Congress passed the National Park Air Tour Management Act in 2000, tasking both agencies with developing management strategies to limit commercial air-tour operators and create incentives for quiet aircraft, nothing has come to fruition in the years since. But last month, in the face of a lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the NPS and the FAA began working on plans that would cover seven parks: Death Valley, California; Mount Rainier, Washington; Badlands and Mount Rushmore, South Dakota; Great Smoky Mountains, in Tennessee and North Carolina; and Glen Canyon and Rainbow Bridge, in Arizona and Utah.
The harm that’s caused by these tour operators has been well-established. According to National Parks Traveler, PEER submitted declarations from wildlife biologists, backcountry rangers, and hiking tour operators to bolster its case. One such witness is quoted as saying he lives within two miles of Glacier, and “air tour noise is ‘consistently in the background from 7am - 8am in the morning to 6pm - 7pm in the evening," adding that he’s observed disruptions that “had potentially negative impacts on the wildland.” Another said, “The mission of my business is to raise environmental awareness through direct, positive experiences with nature. The intrusion caused by overflights directly impacts my ability to fulfil this mission, specifically 'positive experiences with nature'.”
Unfortunately, the current phase won’t include some of the country’s highest-traffic locations, which has some advocates scratching their heads. Roughly 47,000 park overflights took place in 2018, according to PEER, from the low-flying helicopters that cross over Hawaii Volcanoes up to 80 times a day to the small planes that plague the Grand Canyon, the Great Smokies, and Glacier National Park.
In fact, it was a mid-air collision over Glacier in 1956 that led to the establishment of the FAA in the first place, and it could be argued that when it comes to regulation over protected lands, not much has changed in the intervening years. According to one former committee member, that lack of progress has been cause for frustration. “The Park Service was always ready and prepared to talk about noise and sound issues, and how they affected wildlife and visitors. It was always the FAA that was blocking them,” Kristen Brengel, vice president of governmental affairs at National Parks Conservation Association, told National Parks Traveler in July. “No reason has ever moved them to regulate air tours over national parks."
PEER’s general counsel Paula Dinerstein agrees that this talk of change isn’t a new occurrence, and called for the agencies to come to an agreement this time around. “While we are glad that the FAA is finally stirring, we have seen lofty predictions before that turned out to be hot air,” Dinerstein said in a statement. “It is past time that the FAA grounded the flying circuses disrupting some of our most scenic parks and bedevilling their gateway communities…. Protections for our most cherished national parks need to extend beyond the treetops.”