Lawsuit asks FAA to manage park overflights

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Rueter Peak in Glacier National park rises above a stand of glowing cottonwoods.

Litigation aimed at forcing the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt long overdue mandatory air tour management plans for seven national parks — including Glacier National Park — has landed at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., for deliberation.

The lawsuit, brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono, underscores the National Park Air Tour Management Act enacted in 2000. The legislation mandated the FAA, in coordination with the National Park Service, establish limits on overflight numbers, timing and routes in order to preserve park resources and the visitor experience.

But 19 years later, not one management plan has been adopted, according to a recent press release from the Public Employees work.

The lawsuit asks the court to order mandatory deadlines for the development and implementation of air tour limits at seven parks that account for more than half of the 47,000 overflights recorded annually, according to the press release. Those parks are Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala, Bryce Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains and Glacier national parks, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Muir Woods National Monument. The organizations that filed the lawsuit have asked that management plans be implemented in the seven parks within the next two years unless a “voluntary plan is negotiated in the interim.”

Those efforts are underway, but have yet to fully take off, according to the press release.

The FAA and National Park Service recently announced they would “seek voluntary agreements with air tour operators in seven [other] parks” beginning Aug. 9 of this year. Only one of those parks — the Great Smoky Mountains — also is listed in the PEER suit. Other parks that have been approached by the agencies for voluntary agreements include Mount Rainier, Death Valley and Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which have also experienced high volumes of overflights in recent years, according to reports from the National Park Service.

Regardless, PEER cites multiple concerns regarding the agencies’ approach for voluntary agreements with the seven listed parks. The press release highlights three issues: the plan does not guarantee any flight reductions, it is “slow and uncertain,” and it is generally reliant upon consent of air tour operators.

“If there is no credible threat of a mandatory limit, tour operators have zero incentive to voluntarily impose one,” PEER general counsel Paula Dinerstein said in a prepared statement. “The government’s latest filing only reinforces the case for judicial intervention since FAA and National Park Service appear institutionally incapable of constraining commercial aviation, no matter how damaging to parks.”

Allen Kenitzer with the FAA and Jeffrey Olson with the National Park Service said the agencies are unable to comment on either pending litigation or ongoing lawsuits. Therefore, neither agency representative could answer questions regarding why a management plan hasn’t been adopted in nearly two decades, the specifics of the arrangements officials are seeking in multiple parks, and whether there have been efforts to coordinate with local commercial operators in the Glacier area and others.

THE question of how to quell noisy air tours over Glacier, however, is not a new one.

In the park’s 1999 management plan, overflights were labeled as a major issue and the document even expressed interest in banning such tours. That sentiment has been shared throughout the years by residents who live near Glacier within earshot of the operations.

After some 12 years of no action by the FAA, Congress passed an amendment to the 2000 legislation, requiring commercial air tour operators conducting tours over national parks to report their air tour activity to the FAA and Park Service beginning in 2013.

According to a report compiled by the National Park Service based on reported activities, 767 commercial air tours over Glacier National Park were reported in 2016 — the 12th highest number recorded. On the higher end of reported air tours that year, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park experienced 15,489 excursions.

In the Flathead Valley, Montana Air Adventures and Kruger Helicop-Tours are the go-to operators for scenic flights over Glacier.

An employee with Montana Air Adventures, who preferred to remain unnamed, said the company has performed about 120 scenic flights so far this year, a number that is on the higher end because of this summer’s mild fire season. However, not all of those flights were bound for Glacier, as the company offers scenic tours to the Mission Mountains, the Continental Divide and elsewhere.

The employee was not able to provide specific information regarding what regulations may be in place by the FAA or Glacier, but said the company is one of two that are permitted to fly over the park and they adhere to rules for flyovers, the other being Kruger Helicop-Tours. However, Glacier lists flying an aircraft “below FAA recommended minimum altitude (usually 2,000 feet) or landing of aircraft except at designated landing sites” as a prohibited park activity.

The employee also added that other aircrafts not permitted to fly over Glacier nevertheless do, and those overflights performed by non-permitted aircrafts may skew the numbers.

The Daily Inter Lake was unable to reach a representative with Kruger Helicop-Tours for comment.

Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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