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Washington, DC, July 16, 2019 — Under pressure from pending litigation, the Federal Aviation Administration is vowing to curb excessive air tours buzzing over national parks starting this summer, according to sworn declarations submitted in a lawsuit brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This new FAA pledge belies its failure to establish a single air tour management plan covering any park since Congress enacted the National Park Air Tour Management Act back in 2000.
Air tours offer visitors panoramic views of some of our most iconic national parks. But the constant whump-whump of low-flying helicopters and whining drone of small planes disturbs both visitors and wildlife. Some parks, such as Hawaii Volcanoes, are besieged by constant year-round helicopter noise, with as many as 80 flights a day.
Last year saw more than 47,000 park overflights mostly concentrated over a dozen parks. Congress enacted the National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000 directing the FAA, in consultation with Park Service (NPS), to “establish an air tour management plan for any national park or tribal land whenever a person applies for authority to conduct a commercial air tour.” But in the ensuing years not a single management plan has been adopted, leaving national park air tour traffic, no matter how annoying, essentially unregulated.
In response to a PEER lawsuit against both agencies now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, Kevin Welsh, Executive Director of FAA Office of Environment and Energy and Raymond Sauvajot, NPS Associate Director for National Resource Stewardship and Science submitted sworn declarations that the agencies, beginning August 9, 2019, would initiate processes to establish mandatory air tour management plans or voluntary agreements covering the following seven national parks:
- Death Valley in California;
- Mount Rainier in Washington;
- Badlands and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota,
- Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina; and
- Glen Canyon and Rainbow Bridge in Arizona and Utah.
“While we are glad that the FAA is finally stirring, we have seen lofty predictions before that turned out to be hot air,” stated PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, pointing out that the two agencies tried to initiate 16 air tour management plans back in 2003 and 2004, worked on them for several years, and then abandoned them all. “It is past time that the FAA grounded the flying circuses disrupting some of our most scenic parks and bedeviling their gateway communities.”
One problem is that the law requires the two agencies to cooperate, but they have yet to agree on basic principles and divisions of responsibility. Another problem is that the FAA has granted interim air approvals for over 187,000 annual flights, nearly four times the actual number of tours, thus eliminating any incentive for operators to agree to voluntary limits. Consequently, only two parks in the entire nation are covered by voluntary agreements.
“Air tour operators today have zero incentive to negotiate voluntary restrictions and the FAA has yet to support mandatory limits,” added Dinerstein, noting that the PEER suit would force the FAA and NPS to develop air tour management plans within the next two years, unless a voluntary plan is negotiated between a park and tour operators in the meantime. “Protections for our most cherished national parks need to extend beyond the treetops.”