Clearing Skies?

Conflicts over air tours have left the Park Service and the FAA at an impasse for 10 years, but Congress is close to settling the conflict once and for all.


By Scott Kirkwood


If the National Park Service has authority over the parks, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has authority over the skies, who’s responsible for sightseeing flights in the skies above our parks? It’s a riddle that’s gone unsolved for years, but Congress may be close to answering it once and for all.

When most of us return from a park trip, we’re quick to share the photographs we’ve captured—images of mountain views, glacial lakes, and wild animals so close you can almost touch them. It’s much harder to capture the quiet crackle of a campfire, the whisper of wind on ridge top, or the noise of crickets as you drift off to sleep, but those memories are as much a part of the park experience as anything that can be captured in pixels. At many parks, those natural sounds are interrupted by the buzzing propellers of a sightseeing plane or the whop-whop-whop of a helicopter’s blades.

In 1987, Congress recognized this emerging problem by passing the first piece of legislation to address the impact of noise on park visitors. That law required the Park Service to study the effects of overflights, and to take specific actions to restore natural quiet to the Grand Canyon, where air tours had turned into a cottage industry; legislators cited problems in Yosemite and several of Hawaii’s parks as well. In 2000, Congress cast an even wider net with passage of the National Parks Air Tour Management Act, which required detailed plans for every park where low-flying commercial air tour operations take place. (The Act doesn’t apply to the Grand Canyon or park units in Alaska, which have a host of special circumstances, nor does it apply to general aviation and commercial airlines.) The aim was to address growing safety risks posed by unregulated air tours and to get park visitors a little more of the peace and quiet they’d been seeking. The law requires both the FAA and the Park Service to craft plans for every park where air tours take place, but the two agencies couldn’t even agree on a range of options to be considered for a single park, never mind actually selecting one of those alternatives. Years later, for every handful of visitors enjoying the views from above, hundreds of visitors are suffering the consequences below.

“We live in an increasingly noisy world, and the national parks are a place where people can go to breathe a sigh of relief, to clear their minds and to listen to the world around them, and not experience the static that comes with from lawnmowers, car alarms, and ringing cell phones,” says Bryan Faehner, NPCA’s associate director for park uses, and a former park ranger. “You know the cliché about stopping to smell the roses once in a while? Well, the same is true about stopping and listening to a waterfall in Yosemite, elk bugling in the Smokies, or the howl of wolves in Yellowstone. Those moments are what keep people coming back, and what make our parks so special.”

“We’ve gathered a lot of evidence of the impact of noise pollution on wildlife,” says Karen Trevino, head of the Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies programs. “We’ve conducted some particularly interesting research on great grey owls in Yosemite, and we can now show that they plunge under as much as a foot of snow to get a mouse that they can hear beneath the surface. So many species depend on their hearing for so many life-cycle activities, whether finding a mate—elk bugling or songbirds singing or crickets chirping—or for finding food or avoiding being someone else’s food; artificial noise masks the ability of an animal to hear those sounds. We’re concerned with noise impacts to cultural resources as well. Every park has a unique acoustic environment that the Park Service is mandated to protect. Whether it’s the shot of a cannon at a Civil War park or native drumming in the southwest, or jazz playing in New Orleans, we’re working to protect those cultural soundscapes, too.”

To help the Park Service preserve those treasures, the 2000 law required the FAA and Park Service to identify specific routes for air tours to avoid a visitor center on a ridge top, a sensitive Native American or Native Hawaiian site, or other areas where low-flying air tour aircraft may be inappropriate, such as habitat for endangered wildlife species.

But things didn’t quite turn out that way.

The FAA’s experience in crafting flight-management plans is generally focused on residential communities, where the bar is much lower than it might be for a national park. The agency also lacks the expertise of wildlife biologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists who work in national parks, where the impacts of noise pollution are much more substantial.

“Right now there are more than a hundred park units with air tours, and none of them are being regulated,” says Faehner. “The safety concerns that prompted Congress to act are unchanged, and concerns about protecting natural sounds in the parks are unchanged as well. It’s a hollow law that’s not being implemented due to the bureaucratic stalemate between two agencies with very different missions.”

Meanwhile, the number commercial air tours in the U.S. continue to grow. According to the FAA, 180,000 air tours are conducted in national park units already, and the agency has estimated that number could grow to as high as 2.1 million flights in the next ten years—multiplying more than tenfold.

Which is one more reason why Congress has decided to step in. In March, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and a bipartisan group of his Senate colleagues introduced a provision to the Senate FAA Reauthorization Bill that would break the bureaucratic stalemate by clarifying the roles of the two agencies. In the House of Representatives, Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), and nine of their colleagues have signed a letter encouraging leaders of the House Aviation committee to support a similar measure in that chamber.

“Just as the Federal Aviation Administration is the agency best suited to ensure air safety, the National Park Service is the agency best able to determine what makes an optimal national park experience,” says Rep. Hirono. “This language will enable each agency to exercise its expertise and give park visitors what Congress intended: quieter parks and safer air tours.” “After 10 years of inaction, this provision will finally push the agencies toward ending their differences and developing air-tour plans for our national parks, as Congress always intended,” says Rep. Grijalva, who chairs the National Parks and Public Lands Subcommittee.

None of this is to say the Park Service can or should ban air tours in every park. “When people ask me if the Park Service has a policy regarding air tours in national parks, I like to tell them that some air tours may be appropriate in some parts of some parks at some times,” says Trevino. “But other than that it’s very difficult to say, because each park was established for a different purpose according to its enabling legislation and every decision flows from that mission. The National Parks Air Tour Management Act provides us with a tool to evaluate the impacts of proposed flights at each park unit, so we can move forward with plans based on sound science.”

“At a number of different parks, air tours can be an appropriate way to experience the landscape, and they’ll continue to be,” says Faehner. “These things aren’t mutually exclusive. At Grand Canyon and many of the Hawaiian parks, that’s an expectation that the public has, and it’s a reasonable one. By allowing the Park Service to evaluate the impacts and gather input through the public-comment process, the agency can develop air-tour plans that avoid well-traveled areas and critical wildlife habitat so that visitors on the ground can experience natural quiet just like their grandparents did years ago. And we hope the same can be said for their grandchildren, too.”

If Sen. Wyden’s provision is included in the final FAA reauthorization bill, which President Obama would likely sign into law, both agencies would have the clarity they need to finalize air-tour plans for Glacier, Hawai’i Volcanoes, Mount Rainier, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and Yosemite, among others. Meanwhile, at the Grand Canyon, the FAA and the Park Service hope to allow sightseeing flights that visitors have come to expect, while respecting natural quiet in certain areas; their recommendations will be open to public review soon. In both cases, NPCA will need its activists to weigh in. If you’d like to get involved, visit www.npca.org/takeaction and sign up for our electronic alerts.

Scott Kirkwood is editor-in-chief of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Fall 2010 issue.

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