San Francisco Parks Overflight Limits Grossly Inadequate
Suit Charges Air Tour Plan for Four Bay Area Parks Developed Illegally
Washington, DC — The new policy governing air tours above four San Francisco Bay Area national parks would be rescinded under a federal lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and a coalition of local groups. The suit charges that these air tour rules violate federal planning laws and lock in current flight levels with inadequate assessment and mitigation of noise, wildlife disturbance, and other adverse impacts.
The National Park Air Tours Management Act of 2000 requires both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service to jointly develop plans to minimize noise and other disturbance in any national park with more than 50 commercial tourist flights per year. But for more than 20 years, the agencies avoided developing these plans and instead issued interim approvals to any air tour operator who requested one.
In 2020, PEER won a court order requiring the two agencies to adopt plans managing the more than 47,000 annual flights across 24 national parks. The court imposed a deadline of August 31, 2022 for all plans to be finalized. The FAA and NPS missed that deadline for almost all of these national parks, however, and still have not developed a plan for 9 of them. For a dozen others, the agencies in recent months belatedly adopted plans without any required environmental reviews, grandfathering in existing overflight numbers for the foreseeable future.
Such a deficient plan covering Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park was signed in mid-January. It did not reduce the number of air tours, setting the traffic limits at the three-year average. This allows 2,548 commercial air tours per year, the 7th most in the national park system. In addition, the plan –
- Did not use noise surveys or any study of eco-impacts in its design;
- Ignored pleas from the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and conservationists to keep overflights at least 2000 feet above ground level to avoid disturbing migratory seabirds, seals and other wildlife; and
- Applied the 2,000 foot buffer only over the dairy herds at Point Reyes National Seashore.
“The air tour management plan for San Francisco’s national parks is a disgrace and should be rescinded,” declared PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, pointing out that the agencies avoided doing the required reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act to assess impacts, consider alternatives, and respond to public comment. “These agencies did not just cut corners, they completely shirked their legal obligations to protect wildlife, natural soundscapes, and the visitor experience from disruption caused by commercial tours.”
Another major concern is the lack of any specified measures to administer the plan or to enforce what restrictions they contain. Citizens have reported scores of illegal overflights across these parks to the FAA for months without any abatement.
“What is the value of a plan to manage park overflights if it is not enforced?” asked Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that, by contrast, the plan for Glacier National Park provides for an end to all air tours after 7 years. “The ability of commercial tour operators to fly above national parks is not a right, it is a privilege – a privilege that must be subordinate to the values these parks were established to preserve.”
The suit asks for a court order to dissolve the plan and limit overflights to no more than 50 per year until a proper plan is developed. Joining PEER as plaintiffs in the action are the Marin Audubon Society and the Watershed Alliance of Marin.