National Park Air Tour Plans Late and Off-Course
First 2 Overflight Limits OKed; 20 Behind Schedule, Most Lack Eco-Reviews
Washington, DC —It took a court order to end decades of foot-dragging against reining in the thousands of noisy tourist overflights buzzing across national parks. Now, the first two National Park Air Tour Management Plans have been finalized but a score more parks will miss a court-ordered deadline altogether and many of those will be incomplete, lacking legally required environmental reviews, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In 2020, PEER won a court judgment requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Park Service (NPS) to finally implement the National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000, which requires regulation of park overflights to minimize noise and disruption in any park with more than 50 overflights a year. Despite this clear mandate, not a single such plan had been completed in the more than 20 years the law had been on the books.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia set a deadline of August 31st of this year to complete air tour management plans for 24 national parks, ranging from Glacier to Death Valley to Hawaii Volcanoes, that are collectively subjected to more than 45,000 commercial air tours annually. Everglades ended air tours this year, leaving 23 parks needing air tour plans.
As that deadline neared, the agencies began to admit their inability to comply, as their estimated slippage widened with each “progress report.” In addition, the agencies have shirked their legal duty to conduct a thorough environmental review with public involvement, as specified in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for several parks. Instead, they seek to merely grandfather in all existing flights previously approved on an “interim” basis without any examination of environmental impacts regardless of their number, routes, or flight hours.
“While we are glad the agencies are at long last starting to do their jobs of curbing noisy and disruptive park air traffic, the quality and integrity of those plans leave a lot to be desired,” stated PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that most all the official noise and other studies upon which several plans are based have not been available for public scrutiny. “These agencies still do not seem to grasp that the law commands environmental review and public involvement at the earliest stage of planning and through its entire course, not waiting until after the final decision has been made.”
This past week, on the day before the agencies had been called on the carpet by the Court to submit a new brief justifying the mounting delays, FAA and NPS announced the first-ever final Air Tour Management Plans issued for both Olympic and Mt. Rainier National Parks, two parks with among the lowest levels of air traffic.
All the other parks, however, will miss the court-ordered August 31st deadline, with some not slated for completion of their air tour management plans for years. The agencies –
- Predict that nine parks, including Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, and Golden Gate, will have completed plans by January 31, 2023, but none of those will have undergone the NEPA-required, publicly accessible environmental assessments;
- Forecast that ten other parks, including Arches, Bandelier, Death Valley, and Mt. Rushmore, are due for completion during the period between the late 2023 and the end of 2024, with even more delays possible. These parks will undergo NEPA review, but none have yet to even publish their draft environmental assessments.
- Confess that New York Harbor’s plan is in flux as they “are not able to complete a voluntary agreement in the near term” and may now have to begin the NEPA process.
“The Court has ruled that the agencies’ long inaction constituted unreasonable delay and must soon decide how much more unreasonable delay it will abide,” added Dinerstein, noting that the agencies’ brief recounts a litany of “the-dog-ate-my-homework” type excuses ranging from bad weather to “complex airspace.” “In the coming weeks, we will again ask the Court to enforce the law and end the reign of unmanaged overflights across our national parks.”
In its two previous enforcement motions, PEER urged the Court to ground the overflights in any park subject to the court’s order without a properly completed Air Tour Management Plans by the court’s deadline of August 31, 2022.