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National Park Service finalizes air tour management plan for Smokies; group has concerns

Ryan Oehrli
Asheville Citizen Times

The National Park Service announced Dec. 7 in a news release that it has completed its plan, along with the Federal Aviation Administration, to preserve “wilderness character” in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but a leading group of national parks advocates is questioning whether the plan will do that.

The plan’s objective “is to develop acceptable and effective measures to mitigate or prevent the significant adverse impacts, if any, of commercial air tours on natural and cultural resources, visitor experiences and tribal lands,” the plan itself says.

The park will allow 946  air tours per year – the average number of such reported tours from 2017-19 – with other conditions. The tours will happen across six set routes at an altitude above 2,600 feet.

Other guidelines outlined in the plan:

  • Air tours will be allowed two hours after sunrise until two hours before sunset.
    With advance notice, the NPS can establish temporary no-fly periods for special events – such as tribal ceremonies – or planned park management.
  • Operators will submit to the FAA and the NPS semi-annual reports on the number of commercial air tours they have given.
  • “When made available by park staff, operators/pilots will take at least one training course per year conducted by the NPS.”
  • Operators will share a frequency and let each other know when they enter and depart routes.
  • The plan “incentivizes the use of quiet technology aircraft by commercial air tour operators. Operators that have converted to quiet technology aircraft, or are considering converting to quiet technology aircraft, may request to be allowed to conduct air tours beginning at sunrise or ending at sunset on all days that flights are authorized.”
  • Operators will be required to equip aircraft with flight monitoring technology.

“We appreciate the tireless work that went into the development of the Smokies air tour management plan,” Great Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash said in a statement. “The plan incorporates several improvements that allow continued air tour activity, while at the same time better protecting the wilderness character of the backcountry, wildlife populations, natural soundscapes, and the visitor experience in historic areas like Cades Cove.”

The Smokies, which covers a half-million acres of rugged mountain terrain in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina, is the most visited national park in the country, with 14.1 million visitors in 2021.

Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks Chair Mike Murray noted the group’s longstanding concerns around the process leading to the Park Service’s plan for the Smokies – and other national parks – and questioned whether it would actually keep the outdoors experience intact, without “mechanical intrusions.”

“The Park Service’s mission … is to conserve the wildlife, the scenery, the historical objects and the visitor experience opportunities in these special places, not only for the enjoyment and benefit of current people, but for future generations,” he told the Citizen Times Dec. 7. “The more the Park Service bends over backwards to allow, sort of, mechanical intrusions – either into backcountry airspace or off-road vehicles into non-paved areas – the more disturbing modern noise becomes.”

“It may sound kind of esoteric or a little hard to understand, but I think visitors to these places deserve to hear natural sounds, and all the Park Service’s study and research and literature on this stuff has demonstrated that air tours can have adverse effects,” said Murray, who worked for NPS for over 30 years with a range of titles.

Two examples he gave of those adverse effects: hikers dealing with the sound of air tours, or local birds being disturbed by the sounds.

The plan – one of 23 for national parks after a court order – is meant to address the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000, which says that “the National Park Service has the responsibility of conserving the scenery and natural and historic objects and wildlife in national parks and of providing for the enjoyment” of them “in ways that leave the national parks unimpaired for future generations.” Because the FAA has “sole authority to control airspace over the United States,” the two are required to create a plan together.

Murray and the coalition took issue with the process leading up to the plan’s Dec. 7 announcement, he said, as NPS released its research only after it was finalized. Beyond that, NPS did not consider all the possible alternatives as the National Environmental Policy Act requires, he said. The coalition raised those concerns and others in a detailed Sept. 29, 2021, letter to NPS.

An NPS spokesperson said the agency would not be able to comment by deadline Dec. 7.

“The operating parameters of the plan will be effective within 90 days from the date of signature on the air tour management plan,” the Dec. 7 news release says.

“This was how the Park Service approached it,” Murray said. “It remains to be seen if the court accepts it.”