Glacier Park

Glacier Park Unveils Plan to Phase Out Aerial Sightseeing Tours

After more than two decades, federal agencies initiate management plan to reduce noise pollution in airspace above park units

By Tristan Scott
Glacier Heli Tours near Glacier National Park on May 5, 2016. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Despite more than two decades of public pressure and a statutory mandate to restrict scenic air tours above Glacier National Park, the federal agencies charged with placing conditions on the intrusive overflights have remained deadlocked.

Until now.

This month, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began seeking public feedback on a draft Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP) proposed for Glacier, including a provision “to phase out commercial air tours through attrition,” according to park officials, who added that the phaseout is consistent with Glacier’s General Management Plan and “has been and remains a priority management objective for the park.”

The proposed plan would authorize the three remaining commercial aerial sightseeing tour operators in Glacier National Park to provide up to 144 air tours per year on defined routes, amounting to the three-year average total spanning 2017-2019, according to the park’s draft ATMP. The number of air tours allowed under the new draft plan represents a dramatic reduction from the 891 annual flights currently allowed over Glacier.

In order to phase out the air tours permanently and reduce the strain on noise-sensitive resources, as well as on the visitor experience, the agencies will not consider applications from “new entrant operators” and will not authorize commercial air tours by a successor to any of the three existing operators.

“We encourage anyone who is interested in air tours over the park to share their thoughts on the proposed plan for Glacier National Park on the project website,” said Pete Webster, acting superintendent at Glacier. “The draft plan continues scenic air tour activity over the park at current levels while reducing the number of flight allocations annually from what was set during the interim operating authority provided by the National Air Tour Management Act. It achieves the direction, set forth in Glacier’s General Management Plan, to eventually phase out air tour activity over Glacier National Park.”

The question of how to regulate commercial operations in the federally regulated air space above NPS units has been a challenging one to answer for the two federal agencies with shared jurisdictional authority but little else in common.

Mary Riddle, chief of planning and environmental compliance at Glacier Park, has been working on a solution to quell noise pollution created by helicopter tours for most of her career, beginning when the overflights emerged as a critical issue during development of the park’s General Management Plan in 1999. The helicopter tours create a disturbance not only to human visitors, eroding the quietude many seek in national parks, according to public comments, but they also stress wildlife.

“Of all the issues we tackled in the General Management Plan, scenic air tours received by far the highest number of comments, and over 95% of those comments wanted the air tours removed,” Riddle said. “But the National Park Service does not have jurisdiction over that air space. It’s the only commercial activity taking place within the park’s boundaries that we do not manage under a concession-type contract, so we could not make a unilateral decision to prohibit them.”

With their hands tied, NPS administrators have abrogated authority to FAA, but has ultimately remained out of compliance with the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000, which requires the FAA, in coordination with the NPS, to set limits on overflight numbers, timing and routes to protect park resources and the visitor experience. In May 2020, fed up with the delays created by what he billed as an interagency “turf war,” a federal circuit court judge ordered the NPS and FAA to complete air tour management plans within the next two years.

“Left to their own devices, the agencies have failed to comply with their statutory mandate for the past 19 years,” D.C. Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith wrote in his May 2020 opinion. “We fully expect that the agencies will make every effort to produce a plan that will enable them to complete the task within two years, as Congress directed. If the agencies anticipate that it will take them more than two years, they must offer specific, concrete reasons for why that is so in their proposal.”

In ordering the FAA and NPS to produce a schedule for bringing 23 national parks, including Glacier National Park, into compliance with the Air Tour Management Act of 2000, Judge Griffith resolves a lawsuit brought by the Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono, or HICoP, and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which sought an injunction after the FAA and NPS failed to implement air tour management plans for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park had, respectively, the most and fourth-most reported number of commercial air tours in the nation in 2018, according to a 2018 report from the NPS.

The federal legislation requiring an ATMP says vendors conducting commercial air tours over national parks and certain tribal lands must first obtain a permit from the FAA, and mandates that the FAA and NPS establish criteria that may prohibit or place conditions on air tours in certain places, including Glacier Park.

The agencies hope to complete all air tour management plans by the end of August 2022.

A public meeting for Glacier National Park’s ATMP is scheduled Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021 at 4:30-6 p.m. and will be livestreamed via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Links to meeting notifications and recordings will be posted to the project website at parkplanning.nps.gov.

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