Noise News for Week of June 26, 1994

Increasing Air Tours Pollute Our National Parks

PUBLICATION: National Parks
DATE: July 1994
SECTION: page 25
BYLINE: David Lee
DATELINE: Grand Canyon National Park
ACTIVISTS, INDIVIDUALS, AND GROUPS MENTIONED: Representative Pat Williams (D-Montana); National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA); Interior Secretary Babbitt; Transportation Secretary Pena

National Parks Magazine reports that an increase in tourist air flights, in conjunction with other air traffic, is destroying the peace and solitude which many seek when visiting national parks. More than 100 of the 367 units of the National Park System are being negatively affected by air traffic. The flights are also disturbing the parks' wildlife. Government officials are just waking up to the cause of preserving the peace in our parks. The controversy lies in the fact that the parks do not employ or control the flight operators.

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona now has 10,000 flights per month passing overhead during summer months, according to Mike Ebersole, the park's air operations manager. Colorado River guide Jeri Ledbetter finds the aircraft noise has become oppressive. According to Carol Aten, senior vice president of the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), merely the sight of the aircraft disturbs the serenity of our parks. The Grand Canyon National Park does not keep official records of air traffic. Roger Clark, conservation director for the Grand Canyon Trust, says he realized air traffic was a problem in the early 70's. He had been hiking near Thunder River, known for its "roar", when a hovering helicoptor drowned out the natural sound of the river.

According to Dan Taylor, resource manager at Hawaii Volcanoes, the number of flights over Hawaii's parks, Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala, has increased from one a month to more than 60 a day. Jim Martin, Acting Superintendent of Hawaii Volcanoes, also finds the overhead roar of flights oppressive. Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Southeast is becoming increasingly disturbed by flights, according to park spokesman Bob Miller. Glacier National Park in Montana has an increasing number of flights as well. According to Glacier's Chief Ranger Steve Frye, the number of helicoptor flights has increased from almost none in 1981 to 15 a day in 1993. Other parks experiencing air traffic increases are Arches, Canyonlands, and Denali National Park in Alaska. A helicoptor tour operator recently purchased a landing site right on Denali's border. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt acknowledges how polluting the air traffic is to the parks.

Much of the air traffic over national parks also consists of commercial tours, transcontinental flights, and low-flying military jets. The Air Force has increased flights over Joshua Tree National Monument in California, the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado, and the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The Park Service itself also contributes to air traffic but tries to keep flights at a minimum. The parks use planes for research, rescue operations, firefighting, emergency maintenence, and wildlife roundup. The Grand Canyon has cut its flying time in half since the 1970's, according to Ebersole.

According to NPS resource specialist Wes Henry, air traffic is harmful to wildlife. Biologists have studied that noise especially affects birds, by dirupting their feeding, resting, and nesting. This can increase mortality or encourage the birds to leave the area. One report by the interior and transportation departments, the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, records that the parks' wildlife and natural quiet are being damaged by the excessive air traffic. The sound waves from air traffic can also harm natural geological formations. Terri Martin, NPCA Parks Mountain regional director, believes there should be no risk permitted near rare natural sites.

Park officials feel most tourist flights are taken for the ride and not to actually see the park. Jack Thompson, flight operations manager for the National Air Transportation Association, feels the air tour industry provides a "valuable service" for tourists. Park spokesman Bob Miller for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park says the tourist flights attract hundreds of thousands of passengers a year. Air passengers are not considered park visitors because they do not pay money to enter the park, so the National Park Service is trying to collect a fee from the operators at the Grand Canyon, Hawaii Volcanoes, and Haleakala parks. The fee is required by Congress but many flight operators refuse to pay.

The NPCA is proposing to restrict flights from parks that do not have air traffic and to cut down on the number of flights above the parks like the Grand Canyon. NPCA's Southwest Regional Director David Simon feels that the Grand Canyon is a lesson for other parks to learn. Meanwhile representatives of the air tour industry are claiming that the peace has been increasingly restored to the parks because of federal regulations set in 1987. The National Overflights Act of 1987 requested studies on the effect of air traffic on parks and placed specific restrictions on flights over Yosemite and Haleakala. The act created "flight-free" zones and declared flying below the canyon rim illegal. However, air traffic volume has increased since the act was passed. According to Wes Henry, flights that avoid the flight-free zones can still be heard for up to 16 miles. Flights can be heard 50% of one's time in the Grand Canyon.

Interior Secretary Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Federico Pena are working together to specifically help the Grand Canyon. They created an interagency working group dedicated to creating solutions that preserve the natural beauty of the parks but still accomodates the air tour industry. The agencies had declared in March that they would create new regulations monitoring when and where tourist flights may be flown. The agencies are considering limiting the number of overflights, creating "noise budgets", and urging operators to fly quieter aircraft.

Representative Pat Williams (D-Montana) Representative Pat Williams (D-Montana) introduced a bill that would give the Park Service more control over what gets flown over the parks. The bill would put the air tour industry under the Park Services concessions system. The Park Service would have the authority to regulate or prohibit air tours. The bill is waiting for a hearing with the House Natural Resources Committee.

Voluntary regulations are an option that is practiced in Hawaii. Environmentalists are skeptical of voluntary regulations because operators are not forced to obey specific laws. Superintendent Martin states the voluntary regulations are not working well in Hawaii.

Residents living near some national parks have taken action themselves. 900 residents near Montana's Glacier park have signed a petition opposing air tours over the park. Tennessee's legislature legally declared that air tour bases must be nine miles from the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountain park. Residents near the Canyonlands in Moab, Utah, are organizing to oppose air traffic. A heliport outside of Zion National Park was not permitted to be built by the government of Springdale, Utah.

A climber in Canyonlands National Park experienced a helicoptor hovering within 100 feet of him and his partner, with the air currents from the chopper's main rotor forcing the climbers tight against the rock wall.

The first governmental official to note what air traffic might do to the national parks was Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes in 1934. He stated he did not see any sense in looking at the parks flying a hundred miles an hour.

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