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Traveler’s View: Study Air Tour Management Plans Carefully

Bryce Canyon Air Tour Route MapThough we had paddled halfway down Yellowstone Lake into an area of Yellowstone National Park that is managed as wilderness and where it would take you a day or more to reach on foot, we hadn’t entirely escaped the 21st century. From time to time throughout our five days on the lake the throb of planes fell down upon us from high overhead.

That invasion of the skies over the park wasn’t quite as rattling as the small passenger jet that we once watched circling the Upper Geyser Basin as Riverside Geyser erupted, but it nevertheless raised the question of how the skies over the National Park System should be managed.

Heading into the Labor Day Weekend, a handful of parks released draft plans for managing sightseeing flights.

Sadly, it doesn’t look as if the National Park Service is taking the matter as seriously as it should in terms of studying the impacts those overflights bring to the parks. Missing from the plans we reviewed were options to ban the overflights, even though the plans acknowledge that visitors have complained about the impacts overflights have on their ability to enjoy “solitude, hearing natural sounds, and views” during their stay.

“There should be a full range of alternatives, and there should be an analysis done,” said Phil Francis, the head of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. The National Park Service, he went on Sunday, should not look at the past eight years of loosely regulated overflights as if there are no impacts from them.

“We don’t necessarily agree with that. We intend to comment on each one of them,” he said.

What each park that is drafting an air tour management plan needs to do, maintained Francis, is carefully examine impacts the flights bring to the parks.

“What does it do to the quiet, the visitor experience?” wondered Francis. “What impact does it have on wildlife? What impact may it have on air quality? All of those things need to be evaluated.

“… To say what’s done the past eight years is OK, without detailed analysis, we say it’s not OK.”

It was 21 years ago that the National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000 was implemented and required the Federal Aviation Administration, in coordination with the NPS, to set limits on overflight numbers, timing, and routes to protect park resources and the visitor experience. After what some saw as intransigence, in May 2020 a federal judge ordered the National Park Service and FAA to complete air tour management plans within the next two years for several parks.

Back in July the two agencies published the plan details and public meeting dates for Everglades, Death Valley, Olympic, and Mount Rainier national parks.

Last Friday, draft air tour management plans were released by Glacier, Great Smoky, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands national parks, as well as Natural Bridges National Monument.

The need for more stringent oversight for air tours can be seen at Bryce Canyon, where current operations allow nine air tour companies to conduct 3,131 flights over the slender park each year.

“There are no designated parameters on route, time-of-day, or altitude restrictions to further protect park resources or visitor experience,” Bryce Canyon staff note in discussing their draft plan. “Currently, no procedures are in place that allow the park to establish no-fly periods for special events or planned park management. There are currently no training or education requirements for commercial air tour operators flying over the park.”

Such lack of oversight is, frankly, alarming. Equally alarming is that the Park Service seems resigned to permitting overflights without carefully examining their impacts.

Noise is all around us, even in the National Park System. Find yourself on the Racetrack deep inside Death Valley National Park and you might be startled by military jets screaming overhead. Once, while I paused on a boardwalk deep in the swamp of Congaree National Park in South Carolina to listen to birds and insects, the slowly approaching drone of a single-engine plane overwhelmed the sounds of nature.

This noise isn’t disturbing only to human visitors to the parks, but to the wildlife and, believe it or not, the plant life, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Science. The researchers looked at “protected areas,” which include the entire National Park System and which cover more than 13 percent of the world’s total land area.

What they discovered was that the noise we create “doubled background sound levels in 63 percent of U.S. protected area units, and caused a 10-fold or greater increase in 21 percent, surpassing levels known to interfere with human visitor experience and disrupt wildlife behavior, fitness, and community composition. Elevated noise was also found in critical habitats of endangered species, with 14 percent experiencing a 10-fold increase in sound levels.”

The Park Service is well aware of the noise in the parks.

“This analysis is basically building upon maps that we published about a year-and-a-half ago. We have projected noise exposure both at natural and current sound levels for the entire continental United States,” Kurt Fristrup, the Science and Technology Branch Chief in the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, said back in 2017 of the noise research he helped conduct. “We chose to focus on protected areas to kind of dive deeper into the data and try to infer what the consequences were.”

In short, the consequences are concerning.

“Noise pollution causes cognitive impairment, distraction, stress, and altered behavior and physiology in ways that directly influence both wildlife and humans. Moreover, noise pollution that alters the distribution or behavior of key species can have cascading effects on ecosystem integrity,” the study’s authors wrote in the Science article. “Noise pollution is often considered to be an urban problem, but expanding human development and activities in rural landscapes are extending its reach.”

Each park has its own schedule of public hearings and comment periods for their respective draft air tour management plans. You can find that information in the links to the parks above.

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