August 16, 2021

Mr. Shawn Benge, Acting Director
National Park Service
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington DC 20240

Subject: National Park Proposed Air Tour Management Plans referred to in Federal Register on July 29, 2021; Document Citation: 86 FR 40897 Document Number: 2021-16182

Dear Acting Director Benge:

We are writing to you on behalf of our many members and supporters to express serious concerns about the planning process associated with the National Park Service Air Tour Management Plans (ATMPs) for Mount Rainier National Park (MORA), Death Valley National Park (DEVA), Everglades National Park (EVER), and Olympic National Park (OLYM). See Federal Register, Vol. 86, No. 143, July 29, 2021, p. 40897. Note: This letter will also be submitted as an official public comment via the PEPC websites for MORA, DEVA, EVER, and OLYM. While we are writing to you jointly now, both of our organizations plan to submit more detailed comments separately regarding the individual park ATMPs.

Established in 1919 and currently with more than 1.6 million members and supporters beside us, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) is an important voice for America’s national parks, working to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for present and future generations. We celebrate the parks — and work tirelessly to defend them — whether on the ground, in the courtroom or on Capitol Hill.

The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition) represents the voices of experiences of over 1,900 retired, former, or current National Park Service (NPS) employees. As a group we collectively represent over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting the precious natural and cultural resources found within America’s national parks. Among our members are former NPS directors, regional directors, superintendents, resource specialists, rangers, maintenance and administrative staff, and a full array of other former employees, volunteers, and supporters.

To be direct, our utmost concern about the planning process to date is that the NPS has issued multiple proposed actions (the four ATMPs) for public comment without disclosing the environmental impacts of those actions as required under Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) implementing regulations and related NPS and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) NEPA policies.

CEQ regulations at 40 CFR §1501.2(b)(2) require Federal agencies to “[i]dentify environmental effects and values in adequate detail so the decision maker can appropriately consider such effects and values alongside economic and technical analyses. Whenever practicable, agencies shall review and publish environmental documents and appropriate analyses at the same time as other planning documents.” (Emphasis added.)

NPS NEPA policies are described in its NEPA Handbook 2015. Section 1.4.A. Characteristics of NEPA Review, where it states, in part: “While various aspects of planning may take place prior to initiating the NEPA process, the appropriate level of NEPA review must be completed before the NPS takes an action that has the potential to affect the quality of the human environment” (see p. 12); “NEPA requires analysis and disclosure of the impacts an agency’s actions would have on the human environment” (see p. 13); and “The CEQ regulations state that agencies must apply NEPA early in the planning and decision-making process (1501.2). The NEPA process should begin when the NPS has a goal for which it is actively preparing to make a decision and has developed a proposal to the point where its environmental impacts can be meaningfully analyzed (1508.23; 46.100(b)).” See pp. 14-15. (Emphasis added.)

FAA’s NEPA policies are described in Order 1050.1F. Section 1-8 of the Order states, in part: “The FAA decision-making process must consider and disclose the potential impacts of a proposed action and its alternatives on the quality of the human environment… The FAA must integrate NEPA and other environmental reviews and consultations into agency planning processes as early as possible.” Section 2-
3.1 states, in part: “Environmental issues should be identified and considered early in a proposed action’s planning process to ensure efficient, timely, and effective environmental review.” Section 2-5 states, in part: “NEPA and the CEQ Regulations, in describing the public involvement process, require Federal agencies to: consider environmental information in their decision-making process; solicit appropriate information from the public; fully assess and disclose potential environmental impacts resulting from the proposed action and alternatives; and provide the public with this information and allow it to comment on these findings.” (Emphasis added.)

In addition to there being no NEPA analysis provided with the four ATMPs, the NPS and FAA have also not provided any information regarding ATMPs resulting from formal consultation with affected Native American Tribes, as required under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA); and consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as required under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under both NPS and FAA policies, such information should be integrated into one comprehensive document that describes alternatives (not just the proposed actions), analyzes impacts of each alternative, provides information related to the necessary consultations, AND gives the public the opportunity to review and comment on all of the above in one document.

In our view, releasing the proposed actions for public comment without disclosing or analyzing their potential impacts is a significant departure from well-established procedural norms for NEPA, NHPA, and ESA compliance— and sets a horrible precedent for future planning efforts. To make matters worse, NPS and FAA offer no explanation in the FR Notice, on any of the park PEPC websites, or in the proposed ATMPs themselves for such a significant procedural deviation. With no explanation, it leaves the distinct impression that NPS plans to finalize the respective ATMPs based on public comments submitted before the public has had the opportunity to review the related compliance documents.

Similarly, NPS and FAA have not adequately notified the Court of this significant departure from integrating NEPA, NHPA, and ESA compliance into one document that is then made available for public comment. Nowhere in the agencies’ “Proposed Plan and Schedule for Completion of Air Tour Management Plans for Twenty-Three Parks” (Plan and Schedule), which was filed with the U.S. Court of
Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit, does it state that NPS would release the proposed ATMPs in advance of and separately from the required integrated compliance documents. See USCA Case # 19- 1044, Document # 1859099, Filed 8/31/2020.

In fact, the above Proposed Plan and Schedule repeatedly uses the abbreviation “ATMP/NEPA” when referring to the “process” and to the “documents” that will be generated by the process. The combination of “ATMP” and “NEPA” clearly implies the agencies would integrate the proposed plan with NEPA and other compliance. In addition, the first Action item listed in the Proposed Plan and Schedule for the time period “Second Year, 1 Quarter (Sept-Nov 2021)” states explicitly: “Release ATMP/NEPA documents for public comment, as appropriate.” There is no reasonable interpretation of this statement other than NPS/FAA would release an integrated plan/NEPA compliance document for public comment. Yet that is not what has happened.

We sincerely hope that NPS and the FAA can successfully complete the necessary and appropriate ATMP/NEPA documents that will serve to protect park resources and values as required by the NPS Organic Act of 1916 and fulfill each agency’s responsibilities under the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000. Such plans are, in fact, long overdue. However, the NPS approach of presenting the proposed actions (the ATMPs) for public comment in advance of and apart from the required compliance documents is completely unacceptable, sets a harmful procedural precedent for future planning efforts, and is very likely to be counterproductive to the necessary completion of the twenty-three ATMPs by the agreed upon deadline. It is almost certain that many of the public comments submitted on these first four proposed actions will focus on this major procedural flaw rather on the substantive details of the individual plans. It is also very likely that the NPS approach of separating the “plan” from the “compliance” will invite further legal challenge, if not by the Petitioners in the existing case, then by other conservation groups who are equally concerned about the process.

To address this significant flaw in the planning process, we urge NPS to hit the pause button and withdraw the proposed ATMPs from further public review until the proposals can be properly described, analyzed, and compared with alternatives within the context of an appropriate level NEPA review that integrates NEPA/NHPA/ESA compliance into one document, as is required under CEQ regulations and agency policies. Only then should the integrated “ATMP/NEPA document” be released for public comment.

We appreciate the opportunity to comment on this important issue.

Sincerely,

 

 

Theresa Pierno, President and CEO
National Parks Conservation Association
777 6th St NW Ste. 700
Washington, DC 20001
Web: www.npca.org

 

Phil Francis Signature

 

 

Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
1346 4th Street SE #908,
Washington, DC 20003
Web: www.protectnps.org

cc: Ray Sauvajot, Associate Director, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science, NPS
Karen Trevino, Chief, Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, NPS
Kevin Welsh, Executive Director, FAA Office of Environment & Energy
Raquel Girvin, Regional Administrator, Western Pacific Region, FAA