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Traveler’s View: NPS Must Take A Closer Look At Air Tours

By Kurt Repanshek – November 21st, 2022

The National Park Service needs to do environmental studies on air tours/NPS file
It’s not an understatement that the National Park Service frequently, if not continually, struggles with its original mandate: to conserve park resources and provide for their use and enjoyment “in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired” for future generations.

Examples can be found at Zion National Park, with the high summer season crowding and ever growing shoulder seasons; at Rocky Mountain Natonal Park, where congestion has gotten so bad that visitors have in the past told park staff they won’t return; at Shenandoah National Park, where the crush of hikers anxious to summit Old Rag prompted the park to come up with a reservation system, and; at countless parks where campgrounds have been ground into dust bowls and trails have been pounded deeper into the earth and revealed and damaged tree roots.

There have been debates over whether personal watercraft (aka Jet skis) and snowmobiles are appropriate in parks, how many trails should be open to mountain biking, and even where it’s appropriate in the parks to ride eBikes.

It seems with each new recreational technology there’s an audience clamoring to be allowed into the National Park System with it. It’s not a new phenomenon, either. And it’s up to the Park Service to decide what’s appropriate, both in technology and in crowds.

“I still believe parks are for people. If people aren’t in parks, then it’s not a park. … But that doesn’t mean it’s for all people for all things at all times,” the late George Hartzog, the seventh director of the National Park Service, told his biographer, Kathy Mengak. “There’s got to be limitations on it. Otherwise it soon won’t be anything except a playground…”

Which brings us to air tours over national parks, places like Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Haleakalā, Glacier, and Badlands. Critics say the Park Service, in crafting air tour management plans for some of those parks, failed to adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act and conduct environmental studies to determine whether the overflights would impact resources as well as the visitor experience. The agency also has been silent on the plans produced so far, failing to respond to Traveler questions ranging from whether sound studies were conducted to determine air traffic noise on the ground to whether environmental studies were conducted when air tours first commenced in the parks.

Among those concerned that the Park Service is simply rubber stamping existing overflight numbers are Mike Murray, a former Park Service superintendent who chairs the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, and Kristen Brengel, the senior vice president for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association.

“We have serious concerns about the process,” Murray said during a recent podcast on the National Parks Traveler. “We’ve commented on every proposed air tour management plan that’s come out. I personally was involved in all those comments. So I’ve researched it heavily, every one of them. Having been involved in some very complicated planning processes when I worked for the Park Service, it’s inexplicable to me why the Park Service is not doing a better job on the NEPA analysis.”

Brengel, who had been on the congressionally charted commission assigned the task of working with the Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration to develop the plans but left because nothing was being accomplished, agreed. Having parks skirt NEPA requirements by issuing “categorical exclusions,” by which park managers say the plans won’t have significant impacts and so no further study is needed, “doesn’t really move forward an in-depth analysis of the effects of air tours on parks. And so what you get is just a very basic version of how they see the world,” she said during the podcast.

“From our perspective, it’s a missed opportunity to actually manage to the resources and the values and the visitor experience,” said Brengel. “And that’s where the Park Service gets into trouble, by allowing these damaging uses in parks and not putting together plans that are actually the most protective that they could put in place.”

Furthermore, Murray said, the parks had reams of environmental studies in hand but didn’t share them with the public until after the public comment period closed. Those materials, he said, included “all kinds of scientific literature review, fairly sophisticated sound contour maps, all these kinds of things that could easily have been disclosed to the public and let the public comment on in an environmental assessment. Instead, they were withheld and issued after the decision was made. And I find that personally unacceptable, having worked for the Service and dealt with some very challenging and controversial issues.”

Adding to Murray’s concern was that two recently retired park superintendents basically had their hands tied when preparing the air tour plans for their parks.

It “became clear they didn’t have that much say and they were given a formulaic plan and very little time to look at it and respond to it and propose local adaptations based on their local knowledge,” he said.

That the parks in question avoided NEPA is particulary disturbing and greatly disappointing because the Park Service is well aware of how precious soundscapes are in the National Park System.

“Each national park has a unique soundscape. The natural and cultural sounds in parks awaken a sense of wonder that connects us to the qualities that define these special places,” is the very first sentence on the Park Service’s “Natural Sounds” website. “Natural sounds are part of a web of resources vital to park ecosystems. From a babbling brook to a thundering waterfall to yips of a coyote pack, such sounds compose immersive experiences important for wildlife, wilderness, visitors, and cultural-historic events. Protecting the unique sound environment of parks is one of the many ways the NPS works to sustain parks for future generations.”

Except, apparently, when it comes to commercial air tours. That’s why the Park Service needs to go back to the drawing board on air tour management plans and underscore that the language on the pages of the Natural Sounds website really means something.

Traveler footnote: Listen to Murray and Brengel discuss the approach to air tour management plans on National Parks Traveler Episode 196 | November News Roundup. You can ensure that the Traveler continues to keep you informed on air tour plans in the parks, and other matters that impact both natural resources and your experience in the parks, by donating to the Traveler now during our year-end fundraiser.