October 3, 2022
Mr. Eric Veach, Superintendent
Badlands National Park
25216 Ben Reifel Road
Interior, SD 57750
Subject: Badlands National Park Air Tour Management Plan Potential Alternatives Newsletter
Dear Superintendent Veach:
First, welcome to the National Park Service as the new superintendent of Badlands National Park! We hope you will find working within the National Park System as satisfying and inspiring as many of our members found it to be.
I am writing on behalf of over 2,200 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), all of whom have worked or volunteered for the National Park Service (NPS) and who collectively represent more than 45,000 years of national park management experience. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. 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.
We offer the following comments for your consideration regarding Potential Alternatives for the Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP) for Badlands National Park (BADL), as described in the Newsletter at:
1. First, we appreciate that BADL will prepare an environmental assessment (EA) for its Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP) in accordance with CEQ’s NEPA implementing regulations and the NPS NEPA Handbook 2015 – In general, when considering a proposed agency action, such as a new ATMP, NPS must comply with the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) implementing regulations found at 40 CFR Parts 1500-1508 and with the agency’s own NEPA guidance found in the NPS NEPA Handbook 2015. We have been deeply concerned that NPS has failed to comply with applicable NEPA guidance by issuing numerous previous “proposed ATMPs” without considering a reasonable range of alternatives and without preparing any sort of NEPA compliance for public review. We applaud you and the planning team for following the appropriate NEPA process requirements that the BADL proposal deserves.
However, the fact that you are preparing an EA, while most parks have not, begs the question – why did NPS not prepare an EA for many of the other parks that have already issued “proposed ATMPs”? As a practical matter, all 24 proposed ATMPs are being prepared under the same court order; but NPS is preparing an EA in only a very limited number of cases. We therefore ask NPS to explain in the EA its basis for deciding to prepare an EA for BADL while not doing so for many other parks where the NPS and the FAA have also been ordered to prepare ATMPs.
2. The planning newsletter makes no mention of the NPS Organic Act (54 USC §100101) or the park’s enabling legislation (16 USC §441), as amended; and offers no explanation as to either Act’s relevance to the proposed action – While the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 requires the FAA and NPS to prepare ATMPs for parks where a certain level of commercial air tours have occurred, the NPS Organic Act requires the NPS to protect park resources and values, which is, or at least should be, the core purpose of an ATMP. As with all NPS management plans, the NPS “conservation mandate” should drive the ATMP planning process and serve as the basis for evaluating the adequacy of the proposed “Attributes” (as they are referred to in the newsletter) that are presumably intended to minimize adverse impacts of air tours over parks.
Regarding the Organic Act, NPS Management Policies 2006 Section 1.4.1 states: “The most important statutory directive for the National Park Service is provided by interrelated provisions of the NPS Organic Act of 1916 and the NPS General Authorities Act of 1970, including amendments to the latter law enacted in 1978.” As further stated in Management Policies Section 1.4.3:
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)
The park’s enabling legislation provides that “[t]he administration, protection, and promotion of said Badlands National Park shall be exercised under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior by the National Park Service, subject to the provisions of the Act of August 25, 1916” (which is the NPS Organic Act). See 16 USC §441c. In other words, the park is to be managed in accordance with the NPS conservation mandate and “when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant.”
Given that this EA is or should be focused on evaluating potential impacts of commercial air tours on natural and cultural resources and visitor experience opportunities within a unit of the National Park System, we would expect the NPS conservation mandate to serve as a key basis for evaluating impacts to national park resources and values and for determining an appropriate level of air tours. To address this concern, we recommend that Chapter 1 of the EA include a section summarizing applicable laws relevant to the proposed action, including the NPS Organic Act and the Badlands National Park enabling legislation, as amended.
3. The 2017 Foundation Document for Badlands National Park provides important context for this planning process regarding the park’s significance and fundamental resources, which could be adversely affected if commercial air tours are not properly managed – See Foundation Document at: http://npshistory.com/publications/foundation-documents/badl-fd-2017.pdf.
Relevant sections of the Foundation Document include the following:
(p. 5) Park Significance: “The park contains spectacular scenery, predominantly highly eroded landforms that comprise a concentrated collection of rutted ravines, serrated towers, pinnacles, and precipitous gulches… The park protects places of spiritual and historical significance to the Lakota people… The North Unit preserves 64,250 acre of designated wilderness… The park provides unparalleled opportunities to observe … native animals in their natural habitat.”
(pp. 6-7) Fundamental Resources and Values: “Fundamental resources and values help focus planning and management efforts on what is truly significant about the park. One of the most important responsibilities of NPS managers is to ensure the conservation and public enjoyment of those qualities that are essential (fundamental) to achieving the purpose of the park and maintaining its significance. (Emphasis added) If fundamental resources and values are allowed to deteriorate, the park purpose and/or significance could be jeopardized. The following resources and values have been identified as “fundamental” for Badlands National Park:
Archeological and Ethnographic Resources – The White River Badlands are a place of spiritual and historical significance for many Native American groups, especially for the Lakota people.
Scenic Views – The erosion of sediments provides an array of dramatically changing vistas. The spectacular shapes and colors of the landscape range from the low rolling hills to tall walls and spires.
Native Wildlife – Badlands National Park supports range for wildlife native to the mixed-grass prairie of the northern Great Plains. Visitors can encounter bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn.
Wilderness Experience/Values – The expanse of the remote and wild landscape within the Sage Creek Wilderness area provides the opportunity for exploration and solitude. The lack of urban noise pollution allows visitors to experience the natural soundscape of the prairie.
While the Foundation Document does not say so specifically, protecting Places of Spiritual Significance for Native American Groups, Scenic Values, Native Wildlife, and Wilderness Experience/Values are all closely related to and dependent upon preserving the “natural setting” of the park. Protecting the “natural setting” from visual and noise intrusions of low-flying air tours, especially the many helicopter tours proposed at BADL, is fundamental to conserving the Resources and Values described above.
4. The number of park visitors potentially impacted by air tours should also be considered in the EA – ALL of the proposed helicopter tours, which compose 99.9% of the proposed air tours at BADL, would be concentrated over the Cedar Pass Area, which is the most heavily visited portion of the park. Per NPS data, BADL typically receives about 1 million visitors per year, with a recent high of 1,224,226 visits in 2021. See:
https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/SSRSReports/Park%20Specific%20Reports/Annual%20Park%20Recreation%20Visitation%20(1904%20-%20Last%20Calendar%20Year)?Park=BADL According to other NPS visitation statistics, the Northeast Entrance is by far the busiest entrance station in the park; and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the busiest visitor contact station. See various reports at: https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/Reports/Park/BADL.
5. Consistent with NPS Management Policies Section 1.5, the EA should include an “appropriate use analysis” for the proposed action – The National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 (49 USC 40128) established procedural requirements for allowing air tours over parks; however, the Act does NOT mandate that commercial air tours are appropriate and must be allowed. In fact, section (b)(3)(A) of the Act provides that the agencies “may prohibit commercial air tour operations over a national park in whole or in part.” Under the Act, air tours are essentially a discretionary activity subject to agency approval. To our knowledge, NPS has never formally considered or determined whether commercial air tours are an appropriate use of (or over) BADL. We strongly recommend that the EA include an appropriate use analysis as described in Management Policies Section 1.5.
6. The EA should include an “impairment determination” for the proposed action, as described in NPS Management Policies Section 1.4.7, which states, in part – “Before approving a proposed action that could lead to an impairment of park resources and values, an NPS decision-maker must consider the impacts of the proposed action and determine, in writing, that the activity will not lead to an impairment of park resources and values. If there would be an impairment, the action must not be approved.” (Emphasis added)
Furthermore, “[t]he impact threshold at which impairment occurs is not always readily apparent. Therefore, the Service will apply a standard that offers greater assurance that impairment will not occur. The Service will do this by avoiding impacts that it determines to be unacceptable. These are impacts that fall short of impairment, but are still not acceptable within a particular park’s environment.” See Management Policies 22.214.171.124. (Emphasis added)
We strongly recommend that the EA include an impairment determination as described in Management Policies Section 1.4.7.
7. The EA should identify its preparers as well as the respective roles of the NPS and the FAA/USDOT in the NEPA process – The newsletter solicits public comments that may be submitted either electronically to the NPS via the park’s PEPC website; or in writing (i.e., hard copy) to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) at the Volpe Center. As a result, it is confusing which agency is actually coordinating preparation of the EA and serves as the “lead agency” as described in 40 CFR §1501.7; which agency serves as the “cooperating agency” as described in 40 CFR §1501.8; or if both agencies are somehow serving as the “co-leads” in this process. The respective roles should be better explained in the EA.
The lack of clarity about “who is in charge” of the process is a concern primarily if NPS plays a passive “reviewer only” role as a cooperating agency during the preparation of the pending EA, as NPS often does when it functions as a cooperating agency. In contrast, the CEQ NEPA implementing regulations provide for a cooperating agency to play a much more active role in the planning process and we strongly encourage NPS to do so in this case. For example, 40 CFR 1501.8(b)(3) provides that each cooperating agency “shall… [o]n request of the lead agency, assume responsibility for developing information and preparing environmental analyses, including portions of the environmental impact statement or environ- mental assessment concerning which the cooperating agency has special expertise.” (Emphasis added)
The NPS Natural Sounds Program clearly has special expertise with regard to measuring and assessing the impacts of air tour noise on park resources and values, including impacts to wildlife, wilderness, and visitor experience. As a result, we would expect the NPS, not the FAA or the Volpe Center, to prepare the analyses of such impacts. Since the primary purpose of the EA is to assess potential impacts of air tours on park resources and values at BADL, it is imperative that experienced NPS subject matter experts and NEPA practitioners, who regularly evaluate potential resource impacts through the lens of the NPS conservation mandate, are active participants in preparing the various impact analyses for this proposal.
SECTION-BY-SECTION COMMENTS ABOUT THE NEWSLETTER
1. Resources for Consideration in the EA (p. 4) – The proposed list of impact topics appears to be complete as written. We appreciate that NPS has distinguished between and will separately analyze impacts to: Noise and compatible land use (acoustic environment and Park soundscape); Visitor experience; Visual effects (visual resources and visual character); and Wilderness. The impact analysis for each topic should include a discussion of available data, such as previous sound surveys, as well as a review of relevant scientific literature related to the impacts of aircraft noise on specific resources.
2. Thus far, no NPS-proposed ATMP has identified any relevant reference materials or data that were considered by NPS during the preparation of the proposed action. We therefore ask NPS to actively consider the following information, as well as other references identified in other sections of our comments, during the preparation of the EA for BADL:
• Effects of Aircraft Overflights on the National Park System. Report to Congress 1995: https://www.nonoise.org/library/npreport/intro.htm
• An assessment of noise audibility and sound levels in U.S. National Parks: https://sites.warnercnr.colostate.edu/soundandlightecologyteam/wp-content/uploads/sites/146/2020/11/landscapeecology2011b.pdf
• Protecting National Park Soundscapes: National Academy of Engineering 2013: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/18336/protecting-national-park-soundscapes
• Effects of Noise on Wildlife: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/sound/effects_wildlife.htm
• A Synthesis of Two Decades of Research on the Effects of Noise on Wildlife: https://sites.warnercnr.colostate.edu/soundandlightecologyteam/wp-content/uploads/sites/146/2020/11/biologicalreviews2015.pdf
• Conserving the wild life there in – protecting park fauna from anthropogenic noise: https://sites.warnercnr.colostate.edu/soundandlightecologyteam/wp-content/uploads/sites/146/2020/11/parkscience2009.pdf
• A review of the effects of aircraft noise on wildlife and humans 2003: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8683287_A_Review_of_the_Effects_of_Aircraft_Noise_on_Wildlife_and_Humans_Current_Control_Mechanisms_and_the_Need_for_Further_Study
• Effects of Noise on Wilderness: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/sound/effects_wilderness.htm
• Noise pollution is pervasive in U.S. protected areas: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aah4783
• Effects of Noise on Visitors: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/sound/effects_visitors.htm
• Effects of Noise on Cultural-Historic Resources: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/sound/effects_cultural.htm
• BADL Baseline Ambient Sound Levels 2003: https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/DownloadFile/554855
In general, the reference materials listed above are available via links found on the NPS Natural Sounds Program website at: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/sound/index.htm. However, since NPS has NOT referred to any of this information in ANY of the previous proposed ATMPs issued to date, we ask NPS to include it now in the upcoming BADL EA.
In addition, the 2003 Baseline Ambient Sound Levels report cited above is obviously quite dated. NPS should consider doing a new survey to more accurately document current Ambient Sounds Levels and to provide a comparison with the 2003 survey. For example, how have the ambient sound levels changed in the past 20 years; and have air tours played a role in any changes that have occurred? Ideally, NPS will prepare an ATMP that effectively reduces air tour noise impacts at BADL. However, if NPS does not have reasonably accurate and current baseline data, then measuring the sound reduction effectiveness of the plan will be not be possible.
4. Alternatives Considered but Dismissed (p. 7) – This section indicates that “[t]he agencies considered but dismissed alternatives that would allow air tour operations above existing reported numbers as well as current operating parameters at existing numbers. Existing air tour reporting figures are displayed in Table 1. These alternatives were dismissed from further consideration because the NPS determined they would result in unacceptable impacts to the Park’s natural and cultural resources, wilderness character, and visitor enjoyment under the NPS 2006 Management Policies 126.96.36.199, and do not meet the purpose and need for the plan.” (Emphasis added) Table 1 (p. 9) reports the “existing” number of air tours to be 1,425, based on the three year average from 2017-2019. We agree with the NPS determination that “the existing number of air tours with current operating parameters” would result in unacceptable impacts. We will refer to this information in our comments about Alternatives 1 and 3 below.
5. Alternative 1 – No Action/No ATMP (pp. 8-10) – As described in the “Objective” section for this alternative,” [t]he no action alternative provides a basis for comparison but is not a selectable alternative because it does not meet the purpose and need for the ATMP and is not in compliance with the Act.” (Emphasis added) We agree that Alternative 1 is not selectable for the reasons stated.
As described, Alternative 1 would allow operators to fly up to a total of 4,117 air tours per year under their Interim Operating Authorities (IOAs). We have several concerns about NPS’s choice to describe the No Action Alternative as the maximum theoretical number of air tour flights allowable under the IOAs, rather than the much more realistic “existing numbers of flights (1,425) with current operating parameters” (which the agencies also considered but dismissed). See Comment # 4 above.
First, we question whether the maximum theoretical number of flights (4,117) could serve as a valid “basis for comparison” with the proposed action alternatives. As described in the NPS NEPA Handbook 2015, pp. 55-56:
It is important to accurately define the no-action alternative. One reason is so that you can accurately describe the environmental impacts of not taking an action under consideration. This is important because the no-action alternative provides a benchmark for a decision maker to compare what would happen to the environment if current management were to continue, versus what would happen to the environment if one of the action alternatives were selected for implementation… The current state of the resources affected (typically what is described in the affected environment section of a NEPA document) serves as the baseline for predicting changes to the human environment that could occur if any of the alternatives under consideration, including the no-action alternative, are implemented. (Emphasis added)
Second, NPS likely has useful information and data regarding actual impacts of the existing number of flights (1,425) that would allow for a meaningful analysis and comparison of the baseline to the respective action alternatives. In contrast, there is likely no such information on hand to document the potential impacts of a much higher number of flights (4,117) that could theoretically occur under the IOAs, but has not. Using non-existent information as the baseline for comparison obviously makes meaningful comparison and analysis much more difficult, if not impossible. Lastly, we believe such a comparison (to a much higher theoretical number) would only serve to make Alternative 3, which would allow the most flights of any Action Alternative, appear more acceptable than it really is in terms of the relative severity of its impacts.
Therefore, we recommend that NPS consider “existing number of flights with current operating parameters” as the No Action Alternative in the EA. It would provide a much more accurate description of what has been happening and would continue to happen under a “No ATMP” scenario; and thus allow for more meaningful analysis and comparisons between the No Action and the Action Alternatives.
5. Action Alternatives 2-4 (pp. 11-22): General Comment – In general, alternatives 2-4 provide a range of alternatives as required by NEPA. Of these, Alternative 2, no air tours, would undoubtedly cause the least amount of impacts; and Alternative 3 (Operational Modifications to Existing Air Tours) would cause the most severe impacts, based largely on the proposed flight numbers. In contrast to Alternatives 2 and 3, Alternative 4 (Reduction in Air Tours) would cause a moderate level of impacts.
A concern is that the differentiation between action alternatives 3 and 4 is not as great as it could be, or perhaps should be. Providing some variation in the “Alternative Attributes” between these two alternatives would allow for more meaningful analysis of the respective Attributes and their associated impacts and benefits. Specifically, as summarized in Table 6, other than the difference in the number of flights allowed, Alternatives 3 and 4 are essentially the same on all other Attributes, including: Routes and Altitudes; Time of Day, Day of Week, and Seasonal Restrictions; Quiet Technology (QT) Incentives; Restrictions for Particular Events; Adaptive Management; Operator Training and Education; Annual Meeting; Competitive Bidding; Operators, Initial Allocation of Air Tours, Aircraft Types, and Interim Operating Authority; New Entrant; Monitoring and Enforcement; and Amendment.
We have specific concerns about some of the Attributes described for Alternatives 3 and 4. To provide a more meaningful analysis and comparison of potential impacts of each of the alternatives, in part, as a result of their Attributes, we recommend that NPS consider varying (between Alternatives 3 and 4) Attributes that are most likely to contribute to the overall level of impacts. We will recommend modification of some of suggestions the Attributes in our comments about Alternative 4 below.
6. Alternative 2: No Air Tours in the Planning Area (pp. 11-13) – We strongly endorse Alternative 2, as proposed, because it “would provide the greatest protection for the purposes, resources, and values of the Park.” According to the newsletter, protected resources include “sites of spiritual and cultural significance to Native Americans and traditional cultural practices; threatened and endangered species and other wildlife sensitive to noise; Congressionally designated wilderness and visitor opportunities for solitude; ground-based visitor experiences; scenic qualities, and natural sounds.”
As protective as Alternative 2 would be, our primary concern with it is the boilerplate language used in the “Amendment” section on p. 12, which states that “the ATMP may be amended at any time” if either NPS or the FAA notifies the other agency. This seems to unnecessarily leave the door open for future resumption of commercial air tours at BADL, even if in the final ATMP the agencies were to select Alternative 2 and “eliminate” all air tours.
Our experience has been that many NPS decisions to curtail or eliminate controversial recreational and commercial activities in parks, such as commercial air tours, ORV use, hunting, etc., are subject to industry lobbying and political reversal, especially if/when there is a change in administration. The Amendment provision in Alternative 2 provides no certainty that air tours would, in fact, remain eliminated at BADL if this alternative were selected, raising doubts about the validity of “No Air Tours in the Planning Area” as an implementable option. We therefore ask NPS to eliminate the “Amendment” provision in this alternative, so that a decision to eliminate air tours at BADL is “final” and cannot be easily reversed without the agencies re-initiating and completing an entirely new planning process.
7. Alternative 3: Operational Modifications to Existing Air Tours (pp. 14-19) – Under Alternative 3, the annual number of flights would be limited to 1,425 total flights per year across both operators, consistent with the reported average of air tours for 2017, 2018, and 2019. The daily number of flights may not exceed 16 tours per day across both operators. In general, we do not support Alternative 3 as it would cause the most extensive adverse impacts of any of the action alternatives.
Our foremost concern about Alternative 3 is that it would provide no meaningful reduction in the existing number of air tours (1,425 flights annually) that NPS has found “would result in unacceptable impacts” when combined with “existing operating parameters.” See Comment # 4 above. Instead, this alternative would rely on “proposed operating parameters” (or proposed “Alternative Attributes” as referred to in Table 6) to somehow reduce the impacts of 1,425 flights per year from “unacceptable” to “acceptable.”
Based on the limited information provided in the newsletter, it is unclear to us how and how much the proposed operating parameters (or proposed “Alternative Attributes”) for Alternative 3 could sufficiently reduce air tour noise to change the impact level from “unacceptable” to “acceptable” for the same number of flights NPS determined would cause “unacceptable impacts” under “current operating parameters.” We therefore ask NPS to explain in the EA how and to what extent specific Attributes would, in fact, reduce impacts compared to the current situation. This should include whatever information and evidence NPS has to support the purported reduction(s) in noise levels that would occur if the proposed Attributes were implemented at BADL.
We also have concerns about some of the specific Attributes described for Alternative 3, which we believe would not be sufficiently protective of park resources and values. However, for the sake of encouraging NPS to analyze a broader range of alternatives and Attributes, we will describe these concerns below in our comments about Alternative 4.
8. Alternative 4: Reduction of Air Tours (pp. 20-22) – We strongly support the proposed reductions in the annual and daily caps on the number of air tours that would be permitted under this alternative, which would be 1,055 total flights per year, a 26% reduction from existing annual air tours. The daily number of flights may not exceed 8 tours per day. We believe that the most direct and effective way to reduce cumulative air tour impacts is to reduce the total number of flights allowed; and Alternative 4 would clearly accomplish that.
Our primary concern with Alternative 4 is that, except for the numbers of flights allowed, it is essentially the same as Alternative 3 with regard to the Alternative Attributes that would be implemented. Common Attributes shared by Alternatives 3 and 4 include: Routes and Altitudes; Time of Day, Day of Week, and Seasonal Restrictions; Quiet Technology (QT) Incentives; Restrictions for Particular Events; Adaptive Management; Operator Training and Education; Annual Meeting; Competitive Bidding; Operators, Initial Allocation of Air Tours, Aircraft Types, and Interim Operating Authority; New Entrant; Monitoring and Enforcement; and Amendment.
Applying all the same Attributes to both alternatives unnecessarily limits the range of protective measures being considered and to be analyzed in the EA. Rather than assume that ALL the common Attributes are “spot on” as proposed, we recommend that NPS consider different levels of intensity for at least some of them. This would expand the range of Attributes being considered in the EA and allow for a more meaningful analysis of impacts/benefits associated with the respective Attributes. We therefore suggest that the following Attributes be revised and considered under Alternative 4:
a. Flight Routes – The Eagle Aviation fixed wing route, flying at least 2,600 feet AGL for up to two flights per year, seems appropriate and is not a concern. It complies with FAA Advisory Circular AC No: 91-36D guidance that pilots operating noise producing aircraft (fixed-wing, rotary-wing and hot air balloons) over noise sensitive areas (such as national parks, national wildlife refuges, and designated wilderness areas, fly not less than 2,000 feet above ground level (AGL), weather permitting.” (Emphasis added) See: https://rgl.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library/rgAdvisoryCircular.nsf/list/AC%2091-36D/$FILE/AC91-36d.pdf. It also conforms with similar NPS recommendations that “All aircraft are requested to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface of lands and waters administered by the NPS, UFWS, or USFS Wilderness areas.” See:
We are primarily concerned that ALL four of the proposed helicopter routes to be used by up to 1,423 helicopter flights annually, would be heavily concentrated over the Cedar Pass Area in the eastern end of the North Unit, which is one of the most heavily visited portions of BADL and contains a number of popular hiking trails. According to NPS visitation statistics, the Northeast Entrance is by far the busiest entrance station in the park; and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the busiest visitor contact station. See various reports at: https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/Reports/Park/BADL.
Please explain in the EA why so many park visitors on the ground would need to be impacted by helicopter noise in order to accommodate so many helicopter tours flying lower than the FAA recommendation of “not less than 2,000 feet AGL” over national parks. Conversely, if NPS believes that the heavy concentration of helicopter tour routes at the proposed altitudes is appropriate, then we ask NPS to provide modeling and/or air contour map analysis to support such a finding. See: https://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/acrp/acrp_wod_043.pdf; and https://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/policy_guidance/noise/basics).
b. Minimum Altitudes – As stated previously, the proposed 2,600 feet AGL minimum altitude for Eagle Aviation airplanes is appropriate and conforms with applicable guidance, such as FAA Advisory Circular AC No: 91-36D and NPS recommendations that “all aircraft maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface of lands and waters administered by the NPS.” We are, however, very concerned with Alternative 4’s proposed minimum altitudes for helicopters, which range from 800-1500 feet AGL and clearly do not conform to FAA Advisory Circular AC No: 91-36D or NPS guidance.
Many of our members experienced working in and around helicopters during the course of their NPS careers (e.g., for wildland firefighting or search and rescue purposes). Our observation is that helicopters typically fly lower and slower and are generally perceived as being much louder and more annoying to people on the ground than a single-engine airplane flying higher and faster overhead. This observation is borne out by multiple references that document that helicopters noise is widely perceived as being louder and more annoying than airplane noise. For example, see: https://executiveflyers.com/why-are-helicopters-so-loud/; https://www.noisequest.psu.edu/sourcesofnoise-helicopternoise.html; and https://vtol.org/files/dmfile/12HelicopterNoiseLeverton2.pdf. According to the Helicopter Association International (HAI), the sound of a helicopter flying at 500 feet is about 87 decibels. At 1,000 feet, the sound drops to 78 decibels, which is still louder than a vacuum cleaner and nearly as loud as a hair dryer (see: https://aerocorner.com/blog/why-are-helicopters-so-loud/).
We could continue identifying references about the how loud and annoying people perceive low flying helicopters to be. However, our point is that the proposed minimum altitudes of 800-1500 feet for helicopter tours over the popular Cedar Pass Area of BADL is clearly insufficient to minimize nuisance noise intrusions and prevent disturbance of park visitors in the vicinity of where the helicopter tours would be concentrated.
The NPS and the FAA have presented no information or justification for proposing to deviate so significantly from their respective longstanding minimum altitude standard of 2,000 feet AGL over national parks and wilderness areas. To address these concerns and provide a wider range of Attributes for analysis, we recommend that in Alternative 4 NPS consider and evaluate minimum altitudes for each of the four helicopter routes, as follows: no less than 1,500 feet AGL for the Discovery Tour; 1,800 feet AGL for the Valley Tour; and 2,000 feet AGL each for the Grand and Adventure Tours. These altitudes would be clearly more protective (i.e., more effective at reducing the adverse impacts of helicopter tour noise) than the minimum altitudes proposed in Alternative 3. In addition, having a more diverse range of altitudes to consider in the EA would provide for a more meaningful analysis and comparison of impacts between Alternatives 3 and 4.
c. Time of Day – For this Attribute our concerns are focused again primarily on helicopter tours, which, as proposed, would be heavily concentrated over the popular Cedar Pass Area in the eastern end of the Northern Unit of BADL. Alternative 4 would allow helicopter air tours to fly from one hour after sunrise until one hour before sunset for non-QT flights; and from sunrise to sunset for QT flights, the same as Alternative 3. In essence, the proposed schedule will make it extremely difficult for people visiting the Cedar Pass Area to sightsee and hike the popular trails at times of day when noisy helicopter tours are not occurring.
We believe that park visitors traveling to southwestern South Dakota to visit to Badlands National Park should have a reasonable opportunity to enjoy the Cedar Pass Area for at least a few hours every day without intrusive helicopter tour noise. For this reason and to provide a broader range of Attributes and related impacts to analyze in the EA, we recommend that in Alternative 4 NPS consider time of day restrictions that would only allow air tours to fly from three hours after sunrise until three hours before sunset. This minor adjustment would triple the amount of air tour noise-free quiet time in in the morning and the afternoon and provide a greater range of Attributes to evaluate and compare in the EA. The experiences of helicopter tour passengers should not take priority over the experiences of park visitors on the ground!
While we have read what the newsletter says about Quiet Technology Incentives (QTI), NPS has provided no description or data regarding how much measurable sound reduction QTI would provide, especially with regards to the helicopters that would account for 99.9% (1,423 out of 1,425) of air tours at BADL. For example, how much “*noise reduction technology” needs to be incorporated into a particular model of helicopter in order for it to be considered “QT”? How much would QT helicopters actually reduce sound levels – is it 10 dBa, 20 dBa, or more compared to non-QT helicopters? And is it reasonable to think that a local air tour company in southwestern South Dakota would have the financial resources to invest in technologically advanced but expensive QT helicopters? (*See: https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/Documents/Helicopter_Noise_Reduction_Technology_Status_Report_April_2015.pdf).
As a result, we cannot offer an informed comment about what time of day restrictions would be appropriate for QT aircraft; and we do not know if it is financially realistic for the tour operator(s) to implement in this case. However, since NPS does propose a Quiet Technology Incentive in the newsletter, we ask NPS to provide more detailed information in the EA about what the public could expect in terms of the measurable sound reduction if/when QT helicopters are used. If the noise reduction is substantial, then we recommend that Alternative 4 allow QT aircraft to fly from one hour after sunrise until one hour before sunset not. If the noise reduction is not substantial, then we recommend that QT aircraft be limited to the same time of day restrictions as other aircraft. Our intent in making these recommendations is to eliminate visible and audible helicopter intrusions in the vicinity of Cedar Pass during the early morning and late afternoon. Park visitors should have at least a small opportunity each morning and afternoon to experience the park in its natural condition. Lastly, if Quiet Technology is NOT financially feasible to implement under the specific circumstances at BADL, it should be dropped from the proposal.
d. Operator Training and Education – As described in Table 6, operator training and education is “mandatory if requested and/ or made available by the NPS.” This statement is confusing and makes it sound like training is not really mandatory unless NPS decides that it is, presumably at the park level. We understand that the BADL newsletter is using boilerplate language that has been previously used in other ATMP newsletters. However, since this newsletter applies specifically to BADL, shouldn’t the park decide if it wants to require training or not, and then present that as the proposed Attribute for this alternative?
Having dealt with a variety of other commercially guided tours in parks, we would highly recommend that under Alternative 4 NPS require and provide annual air tour operator/pilot training at BADL that should include the operator(s) and all pilots who might be involved in flying air tours over the park for those operators. Such training would not only increase the chances of operator/pilot compliance with the ATMP requirements, it would also provide an opportunity for NPS to share accurate information with operators regarding park history, significance, and interpretive themes – all information the operator and pilots could and should share with its customers to provide a more informative experience to people visiting the park “from above.”
e. Amendments – As described in Table 6, the ATMP may be amended at any time upon notification of either agency to the other. Similar to our concern under Alternative 2, the way this Attribute is written creates tremendous uncertainty about the longevity of whatever ATMP the agencies decide upon this time. It opens the door for future industry lobbying and political pressure to expand the numbers of flights allowed or to “relax” (i.e., weaken) measures intended to minimize the adverse impacts of air tour noise.
Since it has taken NPS and the FAA over 20 years (since the passage of the Act) to begin preparation of the park’s first ATMP, we would hope the new ATMP would provide stable, long-term guidance for the management of air tours at BADL. However, something that can be “amended at any time” is neither stable nor necessarily long-term. We therefore recommend that NPS revise the wording of this Attribute for Alternative 4 to convey the notion that “the ATMP is intended to provide long-term guidance for the management of air tours at BADL. However, future minor adjustments may be made in the ATMP upon the request of either agency to address concerns that arise after its implementation.”
9. The EA should identify the NPS “preferred alternative” as well as the “environmentally preferable alternative” as described in the NPS NEPA Handbook 2015, Section 4.3 – See NPS NEPA Handbook at: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nepa/upload/NPS_NEPAHandbook_Final_508.pdf.
As described in handbook section 4.3(C), “A preferred alternative is the alternative that ‘would best accomplish the purpose and need of the proposed action while fulfilling [the NPS] statutory mission and responsibilities, giving consideration to economic, environmental, technical, and other factors’ (46.420(d)). It is standard NPS practice to identify the preferred alternative in EAs[.]”
As described in handbook section 4.3(D), “The environmentally preferable alternative is the alternative developed and analyzed during the NEPA process ‘that causes the least damage to the biological and physical environment and best protects, preserves, and enhances historical, cultural, and natural resources’ (46.30). An environmentally preferable alternative must be identified in a ROD and may be identified in EAs, FONSIs, and draft and final EISs (1505.2(b); 46.450).” (Emphasis added)
The value of NPS identifying both the preferred alternative and the environmentally preferable alternative in this EA is that it would add much needed transparency to what has been a rather murky and not always public process for the past 20 years. While we appreciate that the agencies are now finally moving forward with the ATMP planning process at BADL, the fact remains that stakeholders had to file litigation in order to force NPS and the FAA to comply with the provisions of the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 after many years of ineffective progress by the agencies. Improving transparency in the planning process now would be a helpful step toward restoring public confidence that NPS is fully committed to its conservation mandate such that “when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant.”
In closing, we appreciate the opportunity to comment on this important issue.
Michael B. Murray, Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
2 Massachusetts Ave NE, Unit 77436
Washington, DC 20013
Bert Frost, Director of Regions 3, 4, and 5, National Park Service
Karen Trevino, Chief, Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, National Park Service
Ray Sauvajot, Associate Director for Natural Resource Stewardship and Science, NPS