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By Kurt Repanshek – May 15th, 2023

NPT Editor’s note: This updates with comments from Mike Murray, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

Proposed air tour management plans for units of the National Park System released Monday range from a ban on the overflights to greatly reduced numbers of allowed flights, targets that were established with input from Indigenous stakeholders and the public at large.

Air tour bans that would take effect if the proposals become final after a 30-day comment period would apply to Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial, both in South Dakota, while Haleakalā and Hawai’i Volcanoes national parks in Hawai’i call for reduced numbers of the flights.

“Notably, this (Badlands) is the first proposed Air Tour Management Plan composed with [National Environmental Policy Act] compliance, including consideration of alternatives,” Jeff Ruch, the Pacific director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has sued over a number of park air tour plans over claims that NEPA wasn’t properly followed, told the Traveler in an email. “This is how the previous plans should have been conducted. Absent NEPA compliance, the air tour operators may have had a legal case for overturning any ban on all air tours.”

Mike Murray, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, told the Traveler last fall that he was greatly disappointed that many parks didn’t look more closely at air tour impacts.

“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,” he said.

After the draft plans were released Monday, Murray questioned why other parks that had to develop air tour plans didn’t do more extensive studies, and wondered why the parks in Hawaii didn’t totally ban the overflights.

“The fact that NPS has considered a range of alternatives and analyzed the impacts of each alternative for these four parks raises the question of why NPS did not do the same for the nearly 20 other parks that NPS was required by the [federal] court to prepare ATMPs for. For those parks, NPS issued proposed ATMPs without considering any other alternatives and without providing an impact analysis of the proposed action for the public to comment on,” he said. “We are especially glad that the NPS has identified preferred alternatives for Badlands and Mount Rushmore that would provide the ‘greatest level of protection’ for park resources and values by not allowing any commercial air tours within one-half mile of the respective park boundaries. In contrast, it is curious that NPS has identified preferred alternatives for both Haleakalā and Hawai’i Volcanoes that would provide considerably less than ‘the greatest level of protection’ at those parks.”

It’s been more than two decades since the National Park Service and Federal Aviation Administration were ordered by Congress to craft air tour plans, and the process has been slow, criticized, and targeted by lawsuits.

As parks across the National Park System released their draft plans, they revealed that there seemed to be no central goal for parks to follow. While Glacier National Park’s plan calls for all commercial air tours to be phased out by the end of 2029 because “[T]he 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,” at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah officials never considered a ban as they worked on a draft air tour management plan.

Staff at Bryce Canyon, and many other parks, claimed there were no significant impacts from the air tours to require more extensive environmental studies as NEPA requires, and so applied “categorical exclusions” that allowed them to avoid those studies.

Those exclusions don’t “really move forward an in-depth analysis of the effects of air tours on parks,” Kristen Brengel, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, told the Traveler last fall during an appearance with Murray on a podcast. “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.”

A lawsuit filed earlier this year by PEER, Marin Audubon Society, and the Watershed Alliance of Marin claimed that air tour rules the National Park Service adopted for Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park violate federal planning laws and lock in current flight levels with inadequate assessment and mitigation of noise, wildlife disturbance, and other adverse impacts.

Under the draft plan released Monday for Badlands National Park, no air tours would be authorized above or within a half-mile mile of the park boundary. There has been an average of 1,425 air tours per year over Badlands reported from 2017 – 2019.

“We encourage anyone who is interested in air tours over the park to share their thoughts on the proposed plan for Badlands National Park,” said park Superintendent Eric Veach in a release. “The draft plan is based on extensive environmental analysis and consultation with tribes and other parties. Tribal consultation indicated that air tours directly over the park are not consistent with tribal values and traditional uses of the land by tribes. The plan’s purpose is to ensure that park resource values, including natural sounds, wilderness character, visitor experiences, wildlife, and other natural and cultural resources, are protected for current and future generations.”

At Mount Rushmore, the draft plan also would ban flights over the memorial or within a half-mile. There have been an average of 3,914 air tours over Mount Rushmore from 2017-2019. Superintendent Michelle Wheatley noted in a release that the plan “is based on extensive analysis and consultation with tribes and other parties, as well as response to public comments from our September 2022 Scoping Newsletter. The purpose of the [air tour management plan] is to ensure that park resource values, including natural sounds, visitor experiences, wildlife, and other natural and cultural resources, are protected.”

At Hawai’i Volcanoes, 1,565 overflights a year would be allowed under the draft plan, a number down significantly from the 11,376 overflights the park saw on average each year between 2017 and 2019.

“An important part of the process is the inclusion of Native Hawaiian groups and individuals,” a park release said. “The agencies are consulting with Native Hawaiian organizations and other groups that have lands adjacent to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, and with Kūpuna (elders) and individuals who attach historic and cultural significance to resources within the park.  ”

At Haleakalā, “the proposed plan would authorize up to 2,412 air tours per year on a defined route within the ATMP planning area. There were on average 4,824 air tours per year reported at Haleakalā National Park from 2017-2019,” a park release said.