September 29, 2021
Mr. Pete Webster, Acting Superintendent
Glacier National Park
PO Box 128
West Glacier, MT 59936
Subject: Comments on Glacier National Park Proposed Air Tour Management Plan
Dear Acting Superintendent Webster:
I am writing on behalf of over 1,900 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), whose membership is comprised of retired, former, or current National Park Service (NPS) employees. As a group we collectively represent over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting America’s most precious and important natural and cultural resources. 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.
On behalf of our membership, we offer the following comments for your consideration regarding the proposed Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP) for Glacier National Park (GLAC):
The National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 (the Act or NPATMA) requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in cooperation with the National Park Service (NPS), to develop an Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP) for each park or tribal land where air tour operations occur or are proposed. While the FAA has the sole federal authority to regulate airspace over the United States, at its core the NPATMA is a park protection law. It requires the agency of authority, the FAA, to cooperate with the NPS to jointly develop ATMPs “to mitigate and prevent the significant adverse impacts, if any, of commercial air tour operations upon the natural and cultural resources, visitor experiences, and tribal lands.” It is noteworthy that the NPATMA does not mandate that air tours are to occur over national parks. In fact, Section 40128(b)(3)(A) of the Act states, in part: “An air tour management plan for a national park… may prohibit commercial air tour operations in whole or in part.”
In contrast, the NPS Organic Act of 1916, as amended, and related management policies establish the NPS “conservation mandate” that should govern the agency’s decision process regarding park air tours. The 1916 Organic Act described the fundamental purpose of parks, which is to “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” See U.S.C., title 16, sec. 1.
In 1978, Congress clarified and reaffirmed the Organic Act, through the “Redwoods Amendment” (92 Stat 166) to the 1970 General Authorities Act (84 Stat. 825). The Redwoods amendment stated that “The authorization of activities shall be construed and the protection, management, and administration of these areas shall be conducted in light of the high public value and integrity of the National Park System and shall not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which these various areas have been established, except as…directly and specifically provided by Congress.” (Emphasis added.)
Section 1.4.2 of NPS Management Policies 2006, titled “Impairment and Derogation: One Standard,” states, in part: “Congress intended the language of the Redwood amendment to… reiterate the provisions of the Organic Act, not create a substantively different management standard. The House committee report described the amendment as a “declaration by Congress” that the promotion and regulation of the national park system is to be consistent with the Organic Act. The Senate committee report stated that under the Redwood amendment, “The Secretary has an absolute duty, which is not to be compromised, to fulfill the mandate of the 1916 Act to take whatever actions and seek whatever relief as will safeguard the units of the national park system.” (Emphasis added.)
Management Policies Section 1.4.3, titled “The NPS Obligation to Conserve and Provide for Enjoyment of Park Resources and Values,” states, in part: “The fundamental purpose of the national park system, established by the Organic Act and reaffirmed by the General Authorities Act, as amended, begins with a mandate to conserve park resources and values. This mandate is independent of the separate prohibition on impairment and applies all the time with respect to all park resources and values, even when there is no risk that any park resources or values may be impaired… Congress, recognizing that the enjoyment by future generations of the national parks can be ensured only if the superb quality of park resources and values is left unimpaired, has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant. This is how courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act.”(Emphasis added.)
In addition, the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1133(b)) directs that “each agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving [its] wilderness character.” Wilderness character is the combination of biophysical, experiential, and symbolic ideals that distinguishes wilderness from other lands. The five qualities of wilderness character are (1) untrammeled, (2) undeveloped, (3) natural, (4) offers outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, and (5) other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” See NPS Director’s Order # 41 Wilderness Stewardship (DO-41), Section 6.2.
Section 6.10 of DO-41 states, in part: “Opportunities to hear the sounds… are important components of wilderness character. Experiencing natural soundscapes…unmarred by human-caused noise… is critical to the primeval character of wilderness, giving the visitor a sense of remoteness and solitude… Anthropogenic noise… travel[s] long distances. In many wilderness areas, the only perceptible human influence on the landscape is the noise… from human activity, often occurring many miles away. Effective management of wilderness should involve careful attention to these important resources.” (Emphasis added.)
Under NPS Wilderness Stewardship guidance, “the term ‘wilderness’ includes the categories of eligible, proposed, recommended, and designated. Potential wilderness may be identified within the proposed, recommended or designated categories.” See DO-41, Section 1. It is NPS policy to manage any of the above categories of wilderness as if they were designated wilderness. Undoubtedly the single greatest impact of national park commercial air tours on wilderness character is the introduction of manmade mechanical noise from above into otherwise primitive and remote locations on the ground. For these reasons, we believe that park managers must give “careful attention” to minimizing air tour noise over park wilderness areas, as directed by NPS wilderness management policies.
Now, after 20 years of inaction and controversy since the passage of the NPATMA, successful litigation has compelled NPS and the FAA to finally prepare ATMPs to address the adverse impacts of commercial air tours over certain national parks as required under the law. The current ATMP planning process provides the NPS with its first real opportunity to have a say in how commercial air tours operate over units of the National Park System (i.e., the parks not excluded under the NPATMA).
In the many ATMPs being prepared during this panning effort, we hope the NPS will affirmatively follow its own mandates and policies and develop appropriate ATMPs that will markedly reduce air tour noise impacts and improve resource conditions in parks that have been adversely affected by commercial air tours during these past 20 years of inaction.
II. PARK OVERVIEW (adapted from Section 2.1 of the proposed ATMP)
Glacier National Park preserves the scenic glacially carved landscape, wildlife, natural processes, and cultural heritage at the heart of the Crown of the Continent for the benefit, enjoyment, and understanding of the public. The Park consists of 1,013,839 acres in northern Montana and is bordered to the north by Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Together both parks were legislated as the world’s first International Peace Park in 1932 and are named Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. The parks are designated together as a World Heritage Site and the world’s first Transboundary International Dark Sky Park. They are designated separately as International Biosphere Reserves. The vast majority of the Park (927,550 acres representing 91% of the Park) is recommended wilderness and, pursuant to the 2006 NPS Management Policies, is managed in accordance with the Wilderness Act.
Glacier receives over 3 million s visitors per year from all over the world. Most of the visitation occurs during the summer. Notable visitor attractions include driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road, visiting the three valleys with glacial lakes, as well as experiencing the Park’s approximately 735 miles of trails that penetrate the backcountry and interweave and connect all sections of the Park.
The Park protects important habitat for numerous sensitive and/or endangered species including the Federally-listed grizzly bear and Canada lynx, as well as bighorn sheep, mountain goat, wolverine, black bear, wolves, bald eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, and loons. The Park is one of the few places in the contiguous 48 states that continues to support natural populations of all indigenous carnivores and most of their prey species.
Additionally, the Park is a landscape filled with various types of cultural resources such as archaeological sites, historic buildings, and Native American sensitive sites. Numerous historic districts, National Historic Landmarks and National Register listed and eligible cultural resources have been identified throughout the park.
The following Park management objectives relate to the development of this ATMP:
- Areas of the Park managed as wilderness allow visitors to have the opportunity for solitude and to experience natural sounds with few intrusions of non-natural sounds. Acoustic conditions should also allow wildlife to perceive natural sounds and not interfere with critical ecological processes.
- The classification of the Scenic segment of the North Fork of the Flathead River, the Recreational segment of the North Fork of the Flathead River, and the Recreational segment of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River is maintained; and natural sounds along these river segments are protected and enhanced.
- As stated in the Park’s General Management Plan and subsequent planning efforts, natural sounds and visitor enjoyment are preserved by addressing noise issues, including working with FAA to phase out commercial air tours through attrition, which has been and remains a priority management objective for the Park. (Emphasis added.)
With the above information as context, we offer the following comments about the proposed ATMP:
Comment # 1: Given the longstanding concerns and controversy regarding the impacts of air tours over national parks and the FAA and NPS’s 20 years of inaction in addressing them, the agencies’ significant departure from standard National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) planning procedures raises major concerns about the credibility and legitimacy of agencies’ planning process.
The planning process being followed by NPS and the FAA (“the agencies”) thus far is nearly unrecognizable to those of us NPS retirees who spent decades working on various NPS management plans and related National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance documents. Numerous significant shortcomings in the NEPA process include the following:
A. The agencies have issued a proposed action (the “plan”) for public comment without disclosing potential impacts or providing any environmental impact analysis regarding that proposed action.
B. The agencies have failed to conduct public scoping or otherwise consider reasonable alternatives to the proposed action.
C. The agencies stated intention is to finalize the action (i.e., the ATMP) before actually issuing an appropriate level NEPA analysis of the action’s potential impacts violates well-established NEPA procedural requirements.
D. The agencies have improperly identified NPS categorical exclusion 3.3 A1 (“Changes or amendments to an approved action when such changes would cause no or only minimal environmental impact”) as the preliminary NEPA pathway for this ATMP.
We will elaborate on these concerns below.
A. The agencies have issued a proposed action (the “plan”) for public comment without disclosing potential impacts or providing any environmental impact analysis regarding the proposed action.
CEQ NEPA implementing 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.) See –https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/40/1501.2.
Similarly, NPS NEPA policies are described in its NEPA Handbook 2015. Section 1.4.A. Characteristics of NEPA Review, states, in part: “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.) See –https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nepa/upload/NPS_NEPAHandbook_Final_508.pdf.
In addition, 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.) See –https://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Order/FAA_Order_1050_1F.pdf.
In other words, by issuing the “plan” for public comment without releasing the “compliance,” the agencies have violated a basic principle of NEPA, which is to disclose potential impacts of a proposed action when asking the public to comment on that action. To make matters worse, the agencies have provided no explanation for this significant departure from NEPA procedural norms.
B. The agencies have failed to conduct public scoping or consider a “range of reasonable alternatives” to the proposed action.
In general, the NPS NEPA Handbook 2015, Section 4.2, encourages the agency to engage “the interested and affected public early in the process on matters related to the proposed action, environmental issues that should be addressed, potential alternatives, and sources of data that should be considered.” Section 4.2 also encourages NPS to identify “a preliminary range of alternatives or preliminary alternative elements, including the proposed action that NPS intends to consider, at the public scoping phase” because “[i]ncluding such information can enhance the value of public scoping comments and create efficiencies by allowing you to address the public’s concerns about a proposed action and alternatives while you are still developing them, rather than waiting until a proposal and alternatives are fully developed.” (Emphasis added.)
As described in NPS NEPA Handbook 2015, Section 4.3, “The term ‘range of alternatives’ refers to the set of all reasonable alternatives as well as other alternatives considered but eliminated from detailed analysis (46.420(c).” “Alternatives are distinguished based on differences in their approach to resolving the purpose and need for action and the environmental impacts of implementing them.” “Reasonable alternatives are those alternatives that meet the purpose and need for action and are technically and economically feasible (46.420(b)).” “Reasonable alternatives must be rigorously explored and objectively evaluated during the decision-making process (1505.1(e); 46.420(c)).” (Emphasis added.)
In brief, it is the NPS’s responsibility (not the public’s) to identify a preliminary range of alternatives or alternative elements for the public to comment on; and/or to conduct public scoping to solicit, among other things, public input on possible alternatives. Neither has occurred in this case.
C. The agencies stated intention is to finalize the action (i.e., the ATMP) before actually issuing an appropriate level NEPA analysis of the action’s potential impacts. This sequencing violates well-established NEPA procedural requirements.
40 CFR § 1501.2 of the CEQ NEPA implementing regulations requires federal agencies to apply NEPA early in the planning process. Sub-section (a) states: “Agencies should integrate the NEPA process with other planning and authorization processes at the earliest reasonable time to ensure that agencies consider environmental impacts in their planning and decisions, to avoid delays later in the process, and to head off potential conflicts.” (Emphasis added.) Sub-section (b)(2) states, in part: “Each agency shall… Whenever practicable, agencies shall review and publish environmental documents and appropriate analyses at the same time as other planning documents.” (Emphasis added.)
Similarly, the NPS NEPA Handbook 2015. Section 1.4.A. Characteristics of NEPA Review, 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.) See https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nepa/upload/NPS_NEPAHandbook_Final_508.pdf.
In sum, finalizing the plan before preparing the NEPA analysis, as NPS has repeatedly stated it plans to do, is fundamentally flawed and violates a variety of NEPA process requirements. Inevitably, these flagrant “process flaws” have become the center of public attention and comment, when the focus really should be on the substance of the proposed action and other alternatives. Our collective experience tells us that the current planning process will not withstand legal scrutiny.
Lastly, we wonder why the planning and compliance process is being managed by the Natural Sounds Program staff, rather than by the park’s environmental and cultural compliance staff? If a park has the capability to perform an appropriate level NEPA review, as GLAC does in this case, we believe the park should be in charge of its own ATMP planning process. However, if the intent of central coordination of the process by the Natural Sounds Program is to provide reasonably consistent planning documents for all 23 ATMP parks, then we strongly recommend that NPS turn over coordination of the planning effort itself to the Environmental Quality Division (EQD). While there is no doubt the Natural Sounds Program staff has expertise when it comes to acoustic science and the technical content and substance of the proposed ATMPs, the significant flaws in the planning process to date raise doubts about the staff’s knowledge and ability to manage the process in accordance with NEPA and other compliance requirements (NHPA, ESA, etc.).
Recommendation: We recommend the ATMP planning and compliance process for GLAC be managed directly by park staff, as is the case with most planning efforts. If the intent of central coordination by the Natural Sounds Program of all ATMP planning is to ensure consistent planning documents across all 23 ATMPS, then we urge NPS to turn management of the ATMP planning process itself over to a highly qualified NEPA project manager at the NPS Environmental Quality Division (EQD).
C. The agencies have improperly identified NPS categorical exclusion 3.3 A1 (“Changes or amendments to an approved action when such changes would cause no or only minimal environmental impact”) as the preliminary NEPA pathway for this ATMP.
In various communications, the NPS has stated that they have “identified NPS Categorical Exclusion (CE) 3.3 A1 (Changes or amendments to an approved action when such changes would cause no or only minimal environmental impact) from the NPS National Environmental Policy Act Handbook as the preliminary NEPA pathway for the ATMP.”
Given the history of this issue as well as the directives provided in NPATMA, it is quite curious that the NPS would consider a pre-existing air tour to be an “approved action” eligible for NPS CE 3.3 A1. While there is no formal definition of “approved action” in the CEQ NEPA implementing regulations (see 40 CFR § 1508.1), the issue’s history and common sense tells us that NPS has never formally “approved” national park air tours in the first place (i.e., has never signed or had the authority to sign, or otherwise “approved” authorizations, permits, plans or other documents allowing national park air tours to occur). In fact, NPATMA was passed, in part, to create a mechanism for NPS to have a formal role in the ATMP approval process. Similarly, there never has been any NEPA review conducted by any federal agency of the existing air tour operations. In simple terms, (No Authority to Approve) + (No Previous NEPA review) = (No previously “Approved Action”) that would support the use of NPS CE 3.3 A1.
Under the NPATMA, an IOA was intended as a stopgap “authorization” of an existing air tour pending completion of an ATMP to determine if the air tour should be allowed; and, if so, what operating conditions should apply to mitigate the adverse impacts of air tours at any particular park. As explained in the June 23, 2005 FAA Federal Register Notice of Interim Operating Authority Granted to Commercial Air Tour Operators Over National Parks and Tribal Lands Within or Abutting National Parks, “[t]he Act requires that the FAA grant IOA to existing commercial air tour operators “[u]pon application for operating authority,” 49 U.S.C. 40128(c)(1), thus allowing these operators to continue to operate without a break in service.” The Notice further states,” [t]he requirement in the Act that the FAA grant IOA “upon application for operating authority” also makes impossible compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. See, e.g., City of New York v. Mineta, 262 F.3d 169, 178 (2nd Cir. 2001).” (Emphasis added.)
In brief, the Act required the FAA to issue IOAs to any existing air tour operations upon application, while rendering it impossible for the agency to conduct any NEPA review. There was no choice or NEPA analysis involved when the FAA “authorized” the air tours to continue nearly 20 years ago. IOAs were clearly meant to serve only as a temporary measure until the agencies could develop proper ATMPs and conduct an appropriate level of NEPA review to determine whether air tours at any particular park should be prohibited or allowed to continue under certain operating conditions, as provided under the NPATMA.
As a result, the NPS claim that an existing air tour is a previously “approved action” that justifies use of NPS categorical exclusion 3.3 A1 is simply not credible. Similarly, NPS’s expressed intent to categorically exclude the ATMP from a more robust level of NEPA review (such as an EA or EIS) is altogether unjustified. This further convinces us that the planning process for this project is seriously flawed.
Recommendation: We recommend the ATMP planning and compliance process for GLAC be managed directly by park staff, as is the case with most planning efforts. If the intent of central coordination by the Natural Sounds Program of all ATMP planning is to ensure consistent planning documents across all 23 ATMPS, then we urge NPS to turn management of the ATMP planning process itself over to a highly qualified NEPA project manager at the NPS Environmental Quality Division (EQD).
Comment #2: Similar to the NEPA process concerns described above, the proposed ATMP provides no information regarding FAA and/or NPS compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which should include consultation with potentially affected Native American Tribes.
Given the various significant cultural and historical resources at GLAC identified in Section 2.1, Park Overview, of the ATMP, as well as the numerous references in the various status reports to the Court regarding Section 106 (NHPA) consultation with affected Tribes, the proposed ATMP surprisingly lacks any information regarding the results of such consultation. As described in CEQ’s NEPA implementing regulations and FAA and NPS NEPA policies, NHPA compliance and other forms of compliance with other applicable federal statutes (such as the Endangered Species Act) should be integrated into the NEPA document prepared for the same proposed action. Since there has been no NEPA document issued with the proposed ATMP, there obviously has been no integration of the required compliance processes, which violates various well-established NEPA process requirements.
First, CEQ regulation 40 CFR §1502.25 (a) states that “[t]o the fullest extent possible, agencies shall prepare draft environmental impact statements concurrently with and integrated with environmental impact analyses and related surveys and studies required by the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act (16 U.S.C. 661 et seq.), the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (16 U.S.C. 470 et seq.), the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), and other environmental review laws and executive orders.” (Emphasis added.)
Second, FAA Order 1050.1F, Section 2-4.4, requires FAA, when preparing a NEPA document on a proposed action that may impact Native American Tribes, to conduct government-to-government consultation with the Tribe(s) “in accordance with the requirements of FAA Order 1210.20, American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Consultation Policy and Procedures.” See –https://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/arc/programs/grand_canyon_overflights/documentation/FAAOrder1210.20.pdf
Last but not least, Section 4.14 of the NPS NEPA Handbook 2015 states: “There are a variety of federal, state, and local environmental review and consultation requirements that can overlap with the NEPA process. The CEQ and DOI regulations direct that NEPA reviews should be integrated with analyses used to meet such other requirements.” (Emphasis added.)
To reiterate, since there is no NEPA review presented with the proposed ATMP, there is likewise no NHPA discussion or analysis nor any other evidence that Section 106 consultation requirements have been met. Our collective experience tells us that the current planning process is fundamentally flawed and will not withstand legal scrutiny.
Recommendation: Again, we recommend the ATMP planning and compliance process for GLAC be managed directly by park staff, as is the case with most planning efforts. If the intent of central coordination by the Natural Sounds Program of all ATMP planning is to ensure consistent planning documents across all 23 ATMPS, then we urge NPS to turn over management of the ATMP planning process itself to a qualified EQD project manager, who is highly experienced and capable of ensuring proper integration of multiple consultation and compliance requirements into one legally defensible planning document.
Comment # 3: The NEPA review for this ATMP should include an “appropriate use analysis,” as described in NPS Management Policies 2006, Sections 1.5 and 8.1.2.
As discussed previously, under the Organic Act and the Redwoods amendment the NPS has “a mandate to conserve park resources and values. This mandate is independent of the separate prohibition on impairment and applies all the time with respect to all park resources and values, even when there is no risk that any park resources or values may be impaired…Congress, recognizing that the enjoyment by future generations of the national parks can be ensured only if the superb quality of park resources and values is left unimpaired, has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant. This is how courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act.” (Emphasis added.) See Management Policies Section 1.4.3.
As stated previously, NPATMA mandated that the FAA grant Interim Operating Authority (IOA) for existing air tours over certain parks. An IOA does not provide any operating conditions (e.g., routes, altitudes, time of day, etc.) for air tours other than an annual limit. In essence, commercial air tours over those parks up until this point have been “allowed” to operate, but have not been actively managed or regulated in any meaningful way.
Preparation of this ATMP under the NPATMA now provides the NPS with its first real opportunity to decide whether to authorize and manage air tours at GLAC or to prohibit them. The fact that air tours have been previously occurring at the park does not automatically establish that those tours are, in fact, “appropriate” in the context of the NPS conservation mandate.
In fact, Congress contemplated that air tours over national parks may be inappropriate in some cases and therefore provided the agencies with the mechanism in the Act to address such situations. Section 40128(b)(3)(A) of the Act states, in part: “An air tour management plan for a national park… may prohibit commercial air tour operations in whole or in part.” (Emphasis added.) However, the NPS has never formally considered whether air tours are an appropriate use over any park. This suggests that NPS has also never considered the basic question addressed in Section 40128(b)(3)(A) of the Act, which is whether air tours of any amount should be allowed or prohibited at any particular park.
Instead of assuming that previously existing air tours must be appropriate and then adopting the status quo number of air tours, as proposed in this ATMP, it is incumbent upon the NPS to prepare an “appropriate use analysis” as part of its planning document(s) to determine if such use should be allowed, and if so, under what operating conditions; or should air tours be prohibited as provided for in Section 40128(b)(3)(A) of the NPATMA.
Recommendation: As part of the planning process, NPS should prepare an “appropriate use analysis” in accordance with NPS Management Policies that serves, in part, as the basis for determining whether air tours of any amount should be allowed or prohibited at GLAC.
Comment # 4: The adverse impacts of aircraft overflight noise on park resources and values, including wilderness, are well known. Noise is the primary adverse impact of air tours that requires the most direct management intervention to minimize or mitigate the adverse effects.
The adverse impacts of aircraft overflight noise on park resources and values are well known. In a 1994 “Report to Congress on Effects of Aircraft Overflights on the National Park System,” the NPS described multiple adverse impacts from aircraft noise, including the following:
- Aircraft overflights can and do produce impacts both on visitors and on park resources.
- Natural quiet is an important natural resource in units of the National Park System that can be adversely impacted by aircraft noise.
- At historical and cultural sites, the setting, ambiance, feeling or association can be disrupted, and vibrations may be induced that can be damaging to structures.
- The primary concern about low-level overflights related to wildlife is that the flights may cause physiological and/or behavioral responses that in turn reduce the wildlife’s fitness or ability to survive. Overflights may interfere with raising young, habitat use, and physiological energy budgets.
- Visitors report interference with enjoyment, annoyance, and interference with appreciation of natural quiet, depending upon the levels of overflight sound which the visitors may have experienced. Backcountry visitors consistently show greater sensitivity to the sound of overflights than do front-country visitors.
More recently, a 2017 article in Science reported that “noise pollution is now pervasive in U.S. protected areas,” such as national parks. Using continental-scale sound models, the investigators found that “anthropogenic noise doubled background sound levels in 63% of U.S. protected area units and caused a 10-fold or greater increase in 21%, 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% experiencing a 10-fold increase in sound levels.” (Emphasis added.) See –https://www.science.org/doi/full/10.1126/science.aah4783.
The same study found that “12.1% of wilderness areas still experienced anthropogenic sound levels 3 dB above predicted natural levels, indicating that they are not entirely “untrammeled by man” as defined by the Wilderness Act (U.S. C. 1131-1136, sec. 3c, 1964). Wilderness areas are often remote sites with low background sound levels that enhance the audibility of distant sound sources; thus, minimizing the intrusion of anthropogenic noise in wilderness will require noise management at larger scales.” (Emphasis added.)
In addition, there are literally hundreds of research studies that have documented the impacts of noise, including aircraft noise, on wildlife. See “A synthesis of two decades of research documenting the effects of noise on wildlife”; Graeme Shannon et al; 26 June 2015. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/brv.12207.
Last but not least, even the FAA recognizes that national parks, such as GLAC, as well as wilderness areas are “noise sensitive areas” that should be managed to minimize noise impacts. Previously cited FAA Order 1050.1F, p. 11-3, defines “noise sensitive area” as:
“An area where noise interferes with normal activities associated with its use. Normally, noise-sensitive areas include residential, educational, health, and religious structures and sites, and parks, recreational areas, areas with wilderness characteristics, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and cultural and historical sites.” (Emphasis added.)
The issue of adverse impacts of excessive aircraft noise to “noise-sensitive areas” is described in detail in FAA Advisory Circular (AC) No. 91-36D. Section 6.a. of the AC states, in part:
“Excessive aircraft noise can result in annoyance, inconvenience, or interference with the uses and enjoyment of property, and can adversely affect wildlife. It is particularly undesirable in areas where it interferes with normal activities associated with the area’s use, including residential, educational, health, and religious structures and sites, and parks, recreational areas (including areas with wilderness characteristics), wildlife refuges, and cultural and historical sites where a quiet setting is a generally recognized feature or attribute. Moreover, the FAA recognizes that there are locations in National Parks and other federally managed areas that have unique noise-sensitive values.” (Emphasis added.) See –https://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Advisory_Circular/AC_91-36D.pdf.
The implication of these many studies and directives is that air tour noise over parks is one of the most significant environmental concerns about park air tours. In essence, aircraft noise is the primary adverse effect of air tours in terms or significance, context, and intensity that requires the most direct management intervention to reduce the adverse effects. As a result, it is critical that NPS and the FAA consider measures in the respective ATMPs that go well beyond simply rubber stamping the status quo. A much more appropriate objective of an ATMP for a unit of the National Park System would be to actually improve resource conditions by markedly reducing the ambient level of air tour noise, especially in areas managed as wilderness. Fortunately, Glacier’s proposed ATMP is one of the few ATMPs issued by NPS thus far that would result in a significant improvement in resource conditions and visitor experience opportunities.
The NPS Natural Sounds Program has a strong reputation for its technical capability to collect acoustic data in the field and to prepare credible scientific analysis of noise impacts. For example, that office has previously prepared Natural Sounds Acoustic Monitoring Reports for many of the parks required to issue ATMPs. See –https://www.nps.gov/subjects/sound/acousticmonitoring_reports.htm.
In addition, we call your attention to a study published in the Journal of Forestry in 2016 titled, “A Framework to Assess the Effects of Commercial Air Tour Noise on Wilderness.” See https://doi.org/10.5849/jof.14-135. As you undoubtedly know, its authors include a number of NPS Natural Sounds Program staff. As described in the article:
Natural sounds are one of the many components of wilderness, and remoteness from sights and sounds of people has been identified as an indicator for the wilderness quality “solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation” (Landres et al. 2008, p. 7– 8). Further, natural sounds are a key attribute for how visitors define wilderness character (Watson et al. 2015), and wildlife depends on natural sounds for basic life functions (Barber et al. 2010). The addition of human-made noise degrades wilderness character by interfering with natural sounds (NPS 2006, Marin et al. 2011). Noise from commercial air tours is one source of noise that is known to occur in wilderness (Miller 2008, Lynch et al. 2011), and the consequences to visitor experience have been quantified (Mace et al. 2013, Rapoza et al. 2014).
Comment # 5: In general, we support the NPS proposed action; but encourage NPS to consider a range of reasonable alternatives as required under NEPA.
First, we support the intent of the NPS proposed action, which is to eventually eliminate air tours at GLAC through attrition. As described in ATMP Section 3.7F, attrition would include an annual allocation adjustment. If an operator closes its business, sells its business, or otherwise ceases operations, the number of authorized air tours would be reduced by the number of air tours allocated to the operator that is no longer operating. In addition, operating authority or allocations under this ATMP may not be assumed by a successor purchaser of an air tour operator’s business or transferred under any other circumstances. Last but not least, as described in ATMP Section 6, no new entrants would be permitted.
As described in ATMP Section 4.0 Justification: “The preservation of natural sounds, protection of natural and cultural resources, wilderness character, and preserving visitor experience by addressing noise issues are priority NPS management objectives for the Park. They include working with FAA to phase out commercial air tours through attrition.” We applaud GLAC for proposing an action that is consistent with the NPS conservation mandate!
That said, to comply with NEPA NPS should also consider a No Action Alternative, as well as a range of reasonable alternatives, in addition to the proposed action. This range should include a “no air tours alternative” that, in effect, would immediately eliminate low altitude air tours over the park and require that any air tour operations remaining would have to operate at least ½ mile outside of the park boundary or at least 5,000 ft. AGL above the park. This alternative is self-explanatory and would undoubtedly be considered “the environmentally preferable alternative” as defined under the CEQ NEPA implementing regulations.
Given the park management objective of eventually eliminating all air tours at GLAC through attrition, another reasonable action alternative to consider at GLAC would be the following:
Proposed New Action Alternative: A phased elimination of air tours over 5 years – As described in Section 3.1, the ATMP would allow up to 144 air tours per year. This number is based on the 3-year average of the air tours occurring under Interim Operating Authorities (IOAs) in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Under this new alternative, the number of air tours allowed would be reduced by 20% of the original total (i.e., by 29 tours) each year for 5 years. As each annual reduction occurs, the remaining number of flights allowed would be redistributed proportionally among the approved operators.
Rationale: Eventual elimination of all air tours at GLAC is a stated objective of park management; the NPS proposed action would accomplish that elimination through attrition. However, the rate of attrition is unpredictable and a lack of attrition over time could allow air tours to continue at the park for many years. A more predictable and date certain option for accomplishing the same management objective would be to reduce the number of tours by 20% per until all tours are eliminated after 5 years. Allowing a 5-year phase out would allow time for the air tour operators to adjust to the eventual elimination of low altitude air tours at GLAC.
Comment # 6: Section 3.4 Day/Time
This section provides that except as provided in the section entitled Quiet Technology Incentives, “air tours may operate one hour after sunrise until one hour before sunset, as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).” We strongly recommend that NPS revise this section to say, “air tours may operate one two hours after sunrise until one two hours before sunset, as defined by …” (i.e., change “one” to “two” in both places). Rationale: The hours before and after sunrise and sunset are when wildlife may be particularly active and present some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities of the day for park visitors on the ground. In addition, the natural lighting around sunrise and sunset can often be particularly beautiful and enhance the park’s spectacular scenery, making these hours a very popular time for park visitors to be out sightseeing and taking photographs. Allowing air tours to take place during these otherwise naturally quiet times of day when both wildlife and visitors are particularly active is an unnecessary noise intrusion that may adversely impact wildlife behavior and visitor experience opportunities.
Comment # 7: Section 3.7A Operator Training and Education
This section of the ATMP provides that, “when made available by Park staff,” air tour pilots will attend at least one training course per year conducted by NPS staff. While we commend the intent of this provision, we are concerned that, as written (i.e., “when made available by park staff”), it sounds as if the park may choose to skip the training entirely. We believe it is essential that each air tour park actually provide such training.
We also believe it would be appropriate for air tour operators to inform and educate air tour passengers about the special place they are flying over. This could be accomplished by requiring air tour operators to provide air tour passengers with an educational brochure or rack card (e.g., jointly prepared by the FAA and NPS) that informs the public they will be flying over a noise sensitive area, which may include wildlife habitat, wilderness areas and cultural sites; and special restrictions (such as AGL requirements) are in effect to minimize the adverse impacts of aircraft noise on the environment below.
Comment # 8: Section 3.8 Quiet Technology Incentives
While we applaud the concept, this provision in the ATMP is meaningless if it cannot be defined and measured. We wonder if NPS intended for this section to adopt FAA Advisory Circular No. AC-93-2 guidance “for determining the…quiet aircraft technology designation status for each aircraft” used for air tours at Grand Canyon National Park; or some other FAA guidance? See –https://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Advisory_Circular/AC-93-2.pdf. If this is not the intended reference, then what is it?
Frankly, the reader (whether it is us, the interested public, or a prospective air tour operator) should not have to wonder what NPS means when it refers to “quiet technology aircraft” in the ATMP. NPS should define, either directly or by reference, the terminology used in the ATMP.
In addition, “quiet technology incentives” are not an adequate substitute for effective and direct management action to demonstrably reduce air tour noise over parks, especially parks with wilderness such as GLAC, which is 91% wilderness. Direct action, such as eliminating air tours or incrementally decreasing the number of flights allowed and/or increasing the altitude requirements for air tours, are practical measures with immediate effect. In contrast, quiet technology incentives depend upon air tour operators voluntarily making significant financial commitments to replace their aircraft with newer models, which may never happen or could take years or decades to occur.
Recommendation: Section 3.8 of the ATMP should include a definition or at least a reference to FAA guidance defining what “quiet technology aircraft” is. For example, assuming the guidance NPS is referring to is correctly surmised above, the opening sentence of the section could be revised to state: “This ATMP incentivizes the adoption of quiet technology aircraft, (add) “as described in FAA Advisory Circular AC-93-2”, by the commercial air tour operator conducting commercial air tours over the Park.”
Comment #9: Section 6.0 New Entrants
We applaud and support the proposal in this section that states, “the agencies will not consider applications from new entrant operators and will not authorize commercial air tours by a successor in interest to any of the operators identified in Table 1, by purchase, merger, or otherwise.” Not allowing New Entrants, as proposed, is consistent with the park’s stated management objective of eliminating air tours through attrition.
IV. CLOSING COMMENT
In closing, the NPS and FAA are nearly half-way through the process of introducing proposed ATMPs for 23 parks as directed by the court. Thus far the agencies’ unconventional approach of presenting the proposed action (the ATMP) for public comment in advance of and apart from the required compliance documents and without any analysis of alternatives has not been explained and is neither understandable nor acceptable. This is particularly concerning given the NPS and FAA’s 20 years of inaction in addressing air tour noise concerns, as required under NPATMA of 2000.
For such a significant and longstanding issue, the NPS and FAA flawed approach of separating the “plan” from the “compliance” sets a harmful procedural precedent for future planning efforts and is very likely to be counterproductive to the necessary completion of all the ATMPs by the court-approved deadline.
To address these shortcomings, we recommend that the NPS turn management of the ATMP planning process over to GLAC’s planning and compliance staff; or if the process must be centrally coordinated to ensure reasonable consistency in the planning documents for all ATMPs, then we urge NPS to assign management of the planning process to an experienced NEPA project manager at the NPS Environmental Quality Division (EQD).
Last but not least, we fully support the park’s proposal to eliminate air tours at Glacier National Park. This is the first NPS ATMP released thus far that endeavors to comply with the NPS Organic Act’s conservation mandate, which is summarized Management Policies 2006, Section 1.4.3: “[W]hen there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant.”
We appreciate the opportunity to comment on this important issue.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
2 Massachusetts Ave NE, Unit 77436
Washington, DC 20013
Mike Reynolds, Regional Director, Regions 6, 7, and 8, National Park Service
Jeff Mow, Acting Regional Director, Region 11, National Park Service
Ray Sauvajot, Associate Director, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science, NPS
Karen Trevino, Chief, Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, NPS