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Finally, FAA is sued for resisting required air tour plans

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After seventeen years of obstructionism, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is being sued for effectively ignoring a law requiring the development of air tour management plans (ATMPs) for National Parks. The National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000 requires the FAA and National Park Service (NPS) to prepare an air tour plan for any park with over 50 flights per year, or develop voluntary agreements with air tour operators. Since then, the National Parks Overflight Advisory Group (NPOAG), which includes representatives from the FAA, NPS, air tour industry, and environmental groups, has been meeting regularly, but very little has come of it.  Two small parks have voluntary agreements, and two others are in the works, but progress on the more challenging parks has been nearly non-existent.  Most egregiously, the planning process at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been absurdly slow: the EIS process began in 2007, but four years later, rather than releasing a Draft EIS, a scoping document with proposed alternatives was released….and that 2011 document is the last we’ve heard! Still no management plan, let alone even a Draft EIS.

So, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibilty (PEER), along with a coalition of Hawaiian groups has sued the FAA to force them to jumpstart the planning at Hawaii Volcanoes and five other parks, calling for them to adopt voluntary agreements or release draft plans within the next two years. Rather than completing the required ATMPs, the FAA has been issuing thousands of routine “interim” authorizations to air tour operators, effectively grandfathering in all existing flights. “Our lawsuit is designed to curb damaging overflights and require the FAA to finally manage what is now basically a flying free-for-all,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER. “Unless the FAA acts, air tour operators have no incentive to negotiate voluntary restrictions to minimize impacts on parks,” Ruch said. “Our lawsuit is meant to jumpstart a planning process that should have begun a generation ago.”

Hawaii Volcanoes Superintendent Cindy Orlando notes that helicopter noise is audible in 98% of the Park’s wilderness areas; “There basically isn’t a single location in the park where a visitor can go and be guaranteed of hearing only natural sounds,” she said. The NPS is not involved in the lawsuit, but has a long-standing position of wanting to move the ATMP process forward at a faster pace. Indeed, in 2015, after the FAA rebuffed NPS input as it redesigned flight corridors in California, two NPS staffers gave voice to their agency’s frustrations:

“The Federal Aviation Administration has a very different mandate than [the NPS],” notes Vickie Ward, the NPS overflights program manager (and a member of the NPOAG). “We look at why parks were established and what were the resources being preserved. In that difference in our mandates, it’s made it really difficult for us to find common ground.”

“We have a long history of [the FAA] not agreeing with us,” said Judy Rocchio, a program manager at the NPS Pacific West regional office. “We feel we’re obligated to get this noise off of the wilderness areas. And so we’re just trying to do our job, and they’re just ignoring us.”  For Rocchio, the longstanding dispute over air tours speaks to her broader frustrations with the FAA’s priorities. The FAA “seems to be more of an advocate … for air tours, and I’m not sure they need to be advocating for the air tour industry,” she said. “Shouldn’t they be partnering with another federal agency to protect resources?”

The new lawsuit targets Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala in Hawaii, Glacier in Montana, Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, Bryce Canyon in Utah, and Muir Woods National Monument in California. It’s not clear what criteria the groups used in targeting these particular parks; only the two Hawaii units are under intense air tour pressure (about 15,000 flights at Volcanoes, 5,000 at Haleakala), with the others being high-profile parks with flights numbering 400-900 per year. Perhaps the thought is that some of these may be candidates for voluntary plans, so that the two-year timeline might create a framework for moving more rapidly in a variety of situations in other parks in coming years.

In 2004, planning nominally began at several other parks with many thousands of flights per year (Lake Mead, Mt. Rushmore, and Badlands National Park), with Death Valley being added in 2009, though nothing’s been finalized at any of these.  And the NPOAG website notes that the 2002 rule-making document targeted several other units to be covered, including Golden Gate and Point Reyes in California (which, together, would likely protect Muir Woods as well), Petrified Forest in Arizona, Mt. Rainier, and two units in New York Harbor. Twenty-six parks currently have over 50 flights per year and so are subject to the Air Tour Management Act (see p.6-8 of this FAA summary); twelve have over 600 flights per year (often concentrated into the summer season), and nine have over a thousand.

Author and filmmaker Doug Peacock speaks for countless others when he sums it up like this: “There ought to be a few places in the world where you indeed can measure some silence in your own life, as it used to be everywhere. The interior of a large chunk of public lands, a national park, is your best shot at it. It’s rendered impossible by the noise of a single helicopter.”


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