Free Rein for Choppers Drives Park Enthusiasts to Court

The Holei Sea Arch is near the end of Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (NPS)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Fed up with chartered planes and helicopter tours shattering the tranquil settings of national parks, nature enthusiasts and neighboring residents brought a lawsuit to spur regulatory action. 

“The Park Service is supposed to protect parks for present and future generations but its jurisdiction in essence ends at the treetops,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in a statement Wednesday, announcing a lawsuit with the Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono.

While Ruch’s group represents hikers and birders, the Hawaii coalition is made up of homeowners whose properties are in the flight path of air tours of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

“In some cases, as many as 80 flights a day roar over their homes,” the complaint states. “They have suffered the near-constant noise from helicopters, and have had their skies marred by the unattractive metal monsters.”

Enumerating medical, economic and social consequences, the group says the noise affects their sleep, upsets their pets, scares away tourists who might otherwise rent their properties, and diminishes property values.

One member of the other plaintiff group, PEER, meanwhile says his soundscape recording in Haleakala National Park was “interrupted by 4,5000 annual overflights which mask the natural ambience and negatively affect the behavior of wildlife.”

The South Fork of the Two Medicine River flows toward the plains from the Badger-Two Medicine area on the Rocky Mountain Front near Glacier National Park. (Photo by DAVID REESE, Courthouse News Service)

Hawaiian parks are not the only ones at issue. PEER notes that its members have faced similar problems at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument, Glacier National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.

The problem, according to the complaint, is the failure by the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate the flights with the adoption of Air Tour Management Plans.

“Our lawsuit is designed to curb damaging overflights and require the FAA to finally manage what is now basically a flying free-for-all,” Ruch said in a statement.

The complaint accuses the FAA of failing to create plans for any park adoption of the National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000.

Instead of developing management plans, the FAA allegedly issues “interim” authorizations year after year that essentially grandfather in all tour operators.

The challengers there have been an estimated 300,000 interim approvals to date, without any environmental review or meaningful national park input.

In order to conduct commercial air tours, an operator must apply to the FAA for operating authority. The requires that the FAA and the director of the National Park Service to establish an air-tour management plan for the park or any tribal land for which the flights are to take place. There is an exception for parks that have fewer than 50 flights a year.

Wednesday’s lawsuit says there were 14,645 commercial air tours conducted over the Hawaii Volcanoes alone.

The law allows the FAA to establish conditions for the flights including maximum or minimum altitudes, time-of-day restrictions, restrictions for particular events, maximum number of flights per unit of time, intrusion on tribal lands and mitigation of noise, visual or other impacts.

“Unless the FAA acts, air tour operators have no incentive to negotiate voluntary restrictions to minimize impacts on parks,” Ruch said. “Our lawsuit is meant to jumpstart a planning process that should have begun a generation ago.”

Ruch said the lawsuit could be a template for other parks not part of the complaint. There are 26 parks with more than 50 overflights a year, according to the complaint.

The FAA did not respond to a request for comment.

PEER attorney Paula Dinerstein signed the 18-page complaint.

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