Helicopters at bottom of Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park

On a beautiful day in Glacier National Park, it’s hard to miss them. Helicopters thwap-thwap-thwapping in from the distance, buzzing Two Medicine Lake, Rising Wolf Mountain, and the magnificent Grinnell Glacier. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Grand Canyon attract chartered air tours roaring above rarely hiked paths, the rotor noise echoing off canyon walls. Same with Hawaii’s stunning Hawai’i Volcanoes and Haleakalā pational parks (these parks see as many as 80 flights per day), Mt. Rainier National Park, and many others. Private planes often detour over pational parks to take in sightseeing. Heli tours rake in tons of tourism dollars for their owners, but to many locals in gateway communities and park visitors, particularly those in the backcountry, they are also a noisome intrusion into places ventured to for quiet.

While it seems national parks would be protected from an overabundance of loud flight tours, few flight plans are made or enforced above the parks; it’s a kind of Wild West in the skies. Last year alone saw nearly 50,000 overflights at national parks. A recent lawsuit, however, may finally be addressing the unregulated flight plans and may be the first real step to quiet the skies above national parks.

Congress actually passed a law in 2000 that was meant to mandate control over national park skies by the Federal Aviation Administration. Called the National Park Air Tour Management Act, it has apparently been mostly ignored by the FAA. Plans have been drawn up, meetings have been held, but little meaningful action has taken place. A group of federal workers called PEER—Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility—and the Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono sued the FAA in 2017 to force it to come to the table with a willing NPS to discuss overflight rules once and for all, after nearly two decades of inaction. That lawsuit specifically sought to address flights at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Haleakalā National Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument, Glacier National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park.

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The NPS can enact all the rules preventing noisy flights it wants, but its jurisdiction doesn’t extend into the sky

But in a filing this week at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, FAA execs and an NPS director submitted sworn declarations that the two agencies would begin discussions next month to finally establish air traffic plans that would crack down on numerous and largely unregulated overflights. Though the agreement strangely mentions only the following seven parks: Death Valley, Mount Rainier, Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Rainbow Bridge National Monument.

Why only those parks are mentioned is unclear.

What is clear is there is a lot of work to do. The FAA has granted nearly 200,000 annual flights over national parks, a number far outstripping the amount of actual overflights, so tour company operators and individuals have no reason to cut back on those flights. Hiking guides, field biologists studying wildlife, park rangers, and other groups have long complained about the noisome intrusion of these flight tours disrupting not just the peace and quiet sought after by visitors on the ground, but have also cited the disturbance to wildlife. Helicopters will occasionally settle low over wildlife to give paying clients better views, no doubt stressing the animals meant to be protected in the parks.

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Some parks, like Glacier, actually prohibit overflights as part of their general management plan, but the NPS can’t actually enforce its own rules at the expense of the FAA. An attempt to limit flights over the Grand Canyon saw agreement by the FAA and NPS in 2011, only to be blocked through Congressional action. So there have been baby steps made in isolated cases, just little follow-through, at least until PEER’s lawsuit seemingly lit a fire.

A spokesperson for PEER, Jeff Ruch, guessed that the seven parks mentioned by the FAA and the NPS in this week’s promise to curb overflights were chosen because agreements about restricting overflights there would be simple, and would make it seem as though the FAA is committed to devoting the resources it would take to actually draw up and implement a meaningful plan to cut way back on the nearly 50,000 flights over national parks throughout the country. The NPS, clearly—you need only look at Glacier’s toothless plan—can enact all the rules preventing noisy flights it wants, but its jurisdiction doesn’t extend into the sky.

“It’s not the Park Service’s fault at all,” said Kristen Brengel, National Parks Conservation Association’s VP of government affairs, who was appointed during the George W. Bush administration to an FAA board tasked with looking into overflights. “It was never the Park Service’s fault. 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.”

PEER’s lawsuit may force the FAA to live up to its end of the National Park Air Tour Management Act, but until it does, or Congress steps in to address the issue, it appears the changes will be slow-moving.

Top photo by Prayitno


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