National Park Traveler Logo

National Park Air Tour Management Plans In California Challenged In Court

By NPT Staff – March 21st, 2023

In the ongoing trend of air tour management plans for national parks being called shoddy and insufficient in their crafting, a lawsuit has been filed challenging tour plans for Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.

The lawsuit, filed by Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility, Marin Audubon Society, and the Watershed Alliance of Marin, claims that these air tour rules violate federal planning laws and lock in current flight levels with inadequate assessment and mitigation of noise, wildlife disturbance, and other adverse impacts.

Similar complaints have been voiced over air tour managements developed by the National Park Service and Federal Aviation Administration for Bryce Canyon National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument.

Glacier National Park in Montana stands out for its air tour plan, which sunsets the tours by 2029.

The National Park Air Tours Management Act of 2000 requires both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service to jointly develop plans to minimize noise and other disturbance in any national park with more than 50 commercial tourist flights per year. But for more than 20 years, the agencies avoided developing these plans and instead issued interim approvals to any air tour operator who requested one.

In 2020, PEER won a court order requiring the two agencies to adopt plans managing the more than 47,000 annual flights across 24 national parks. The court imposed a deadline of August 31, 2022, for all plans to be finalized. The FAA and NPS missed that deadline for almost all of these national parks, however, and still have not developed a plan for nine of them. For a dozen others, the agencies in recent months belatedly adopted plans without any required environmental reviews, grandfathering in existing overflight numbers for the foreseeable future, according to PEER.

National Park Service staff told the Traveler late last year that the agency never considered a complete ban on air tours at Bryce Canyon as they worked on their plan. Since the proposed plan “would not result in significant impacts to park resources, and that no significant impacts from air tours have been observed at the park in the past,” there was no need for a more robust environmental study, the Park Service said.

Under the Bryce Canyon plan, which takes effect in January, up to 515 air tours per year may be flown over the park on defined routes.

At the time Mike Murray, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said he was disappointed by the Park Service’s approach.

“We have serious concerns about the process,” Murray said during a podcast on the 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.”

Kristen Brengel, senior vice president for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, added during the podcast that categorical exclusions used by the Park Service to avoid a more rigorous environmental review of air tours don’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. … From our perspective, it’s a missed opportunity to actually manage to the resources and the values and the visitor experience. 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.”

The air tour plan covering Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park was signed in mid-January. It did not reduce the number of air tours, setting the traffic limits at the three-year average, according to PEER. This allows 2,548 commercial air tours per year, the seventh most in the national park system. In addition, the watchdog group said the plan:

  • Did not use noise surveys or any study of eco-impacts in its design
  • Ignored pleas from the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and conservationists to keep overflights at least 2000 feet above ground level to avoid disturbing migratory seabirds, seals and other wildlife; and
  • Applied the 2,000 foot buffer only over the dairy herds at Point Reyes National Seashore.

“The air tour management plan for San Francisco’s national parks is a disgrace and should be rescinded,” PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein said Monday, pointing out that the agencies avoided doing the required reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act to assess impacts, consider alternatives, and respond to public comment. “These agencies did not just cut corners, they completely shirked their legal obligations to protect wildlife, natural soundscapes, and the visitor experience from disruption caused by commercial tours.”

Another major concern is the lack of any specified measures to administer the plan or to enforce what restrictions they contain. Citizens have reported scores of illegal overflights across these parks to the FAA for months without any abatement.

“What is the value of a plan to manage park overflights if it is not enforced?” asked Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that, by contrast, the plan for Glacier National Park provides for an end to all air tours after seven years. “The ability of commercial tour operators to fly above national parks is not a right, it is a privilege — a privilege that must be subordinate to the values these parks were established to preserve.”

The lawsuit asks for a court order to dissolve the plan and limit overflights to no more than 50 per year until a proper plan is developed.