The Battle For The Skies Over National Parks Drags On

The rumpled landscape of Badlands National Park draws visitors who like to view it from overhead/NPS file, Larry McAfee

The Battle For The Skies Over National Parks Drags On

By Lori Sonken

From 1,000 feet aboveground, Mark A. Schlaefli pointed out, there is no way for his passengers to “try to pet a bison” while gazing across the rumpled and colorful landscape of Badlands National Park below.

“We do produce a little bit of noise. However, we are the single lowest impact form of visitation that anybody can take over any land in any park,” added Schlaefli, who is fighting for his livelihood in pushing back against efforts to reduce scenic air tours over national parks.

“I leave nothing behind. I don’t require infrastructure. I don’t cut trails. I don’t cut roads. I don’t pave parking lots or build parking structures. My passengers don’t try to pet bison, which is a plus and we leave nothing behind, except a little bit of noise,” he said during a phone call.

Schlaefli, who operates four air tour companies that offer aerial views of Badlands National Park and nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, pressed his case recently during a Congressional hearing into the air tour plans being crafted by the National Park Service and Federal Aviation Administration that he fears will put him out of business. 

The Need For Plans

The issue is not new. Congress in 2000 passed the National Parks Air Tour Management Act governing scenic flights over national parks outside Alaska and the Grand Canyon National Park, which obtained its own flight plan in 1987. It directed the National Park Service to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to craft the flight plans.

In 2020 National Park Service staff photographed a helicopter hovering about 100 feet away from cliff dwellings at Montezuma Castle National Monument/Kurt Repanshek file

Those in favor of flight restrictions, or complete bans, argue that they disrupt the enjoyment of park visitors on the ground, bother wildlife, and, in the case of helicopters with the vibrational sound energy creating by their thwopping blades, can be hazardous to ancient cliff dwellings and fragile rock formations. Indeed, back in 2020 staff at Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona photographed a helicopter that was hovering practically level with the cliff dwellings there.

“The pilots were risking serious damage to the site’s ancient architecture,” monument staff said at the time. “Studies show that rotor vibrations from close-flying helicopters can cause serious problems. At Montezuma Castle, these vibrations could easily damage or destroy 850-year-old wooden ceilings and masonry walls.”

Another concern with the overflights is their ability to intrude on Indigenous peoples’ ceremonial events on their homelands. With that in mind, the FAA and Park Service have proposed an ATMP for Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona that would eliminate overflights below 5,000 feet. 

Filled with ceremonial sites, such as White House Ruins, the monument is important to the Navajo people.  

“These sites are our relatives and as important to us as any church, synagogue, or temple to the outside world.  They are irreplaceable and any damage done would be devastating,” said Carl Slater, delegate for the Navajo Nation Council, in testimony delivered to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation in December. 

Slater did not respond to the Traveler’s requests for specific examples of overflights disrupting sacred ceremonies.

Political Pushback

U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, chaired that December subcommittee hearing. The Republican long has advocated for the air tour industry in his home state, where planes and helicopters ferry sightseers over Grand Canyon National Park. His hearing focused on the impacts that air tour restrictions may have on gateway towns, tour operators, disabled individuals, and those preferring to see parks from the sky rather than the ground. 

During his testimony, Schlaefli told the politicians that his companies transport people in the Black Hills on scenic flights at about 1,000 feet above ground level. The flight plans issued in November for Badlands and Mount Rushmore will restrict scenic air tours to one half mile beyond the parks’ boundaries and eliminate flights flying below 5,000 feet above ground level, beginning in May.

“Air tour management plans were never intended to be air tour elimination plans,” Schlaefli said.

The House has passed two measures designed to weaken creation and implementation of air tour plans.

Gosar in November worked with Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, to add an amendment to legislation to fund the Interior Department that would prevent the National Park Service from spending any money to limit air tours. Another measure requires the FAA and NPS to consult with the National Parks Oversight Advisory Group, which includes federal officials, aviation industry representatives, air tour operators, environmental groups and tribes, when preparing air tour management plans.

The Senate has not moved on either measure.

Management Plan Critics

For many years the Park Service and FAA were bogged down in the process of designing flight plans, haggling over routes, altitudes, hours of operation, and types of aircraft for the commercial air tours. 

Not until the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) sued to compel the agencies to prepare ATMPs — and won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court in 2020 — did the agencies kick into action. Of the 23 parks requiring ATMPs or voluntary overflight agreements, 20 now have them, and the remaining three plans are expected to be completed by the end of this year. 

The courts, which in the past have castigated the NPS and FAA for dragging their feet on developing the plans, are again being involved in the fray, making resolution unlikely anytime soon.

National Parks Conservation Association staff wishes the aerial tour routes over Bryce Canyon had been moved off to the east of the park/Rebecca Latson file

PEER and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) have a new complaint: the agencies failed at many parks to conduct environmental assessments that evaluate alternative actions and their impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act. Instead, the agencies used what’s known as a ‘categorical exclusion’ to avoid the studies, claiming the assessments weren’t necessary because the overflights don’t significantly affect the human environment.

In many cases, the NPS and FAA have used a formula that sets the allowed number of air tours on the average number of flights flown from 2017-2019. This means that at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, for example, up to 515 air tours may occur annually.

The lack of more rigorous environmental studies was compounded by the agencies’ approved flight corridors for the scenic tours, claims NPCA.

“We hoped they would have moved the air tours to the east side of the park beyond the border,” where it’s still possible to see the park’s colorful spires — called hoodoos — jutting into the sky, Kristen Brengel, NPCA’s senior vice president of government, said of the plan approved for Bryce Canyon.

In Brengel’s view, the agencies failed to conduct the proper environmental analysis to protect the park resources, including the natural sounds and visitor experience at Arches National Park in Utah, for example, where 309 air tours are allowed annually.

“Our national parks from Hawaii Volcanoes to Bryce Canyon are wildly beautiful places where visitors can enjoy sights and sounds. Just being in nature — hearing birds and the sound of wind through a canyon are special experiences,” she said in an email.

“Helicopters and fixed-wing tour planes are incredibly noisy, shattering the sounds of nature and ruining people’s once-in-a-lifetime trips. Those are extremely negative impacts that violate the laws and policies governing parks,” added Brengel.

Legal Challenges 

Schlaefli said his companies conducted about 1,500 tours over Badlands and 5,300 over Mount Rushmore in 2021. Charging from $59-$279 per person for a ride varying in length from 10-30 minutes, each tour carries up to four passengers per helicopter, in addition to the pilot.

Most of his passengers, he said, are elderly, young or disabled without other opportunities to visit national parks.

In addition to testifying to Congress, the businessman has filed a lawsuit asking the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to review the records of decision for the ATMPs for Badlands and Mount Rushmore.

“We believe the process was inherently flawed and violates federal law. We’re seeking a seat at the table for a fair plan, not a complete elimination plan,” he said.

Meanwhile, PEER argued in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in January that the National Parks Air Tours Management Act does not allow federal agencies to use the categorical exclusion established for San Francisco Bay Area parks — governing Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore, San Francisco Bay Maritime National Historical Park, and Muir Woods National Monument, said Peter Jenkins, senior counsel.

Jenkins expects a court decision within three to six months. “If we prevail that it was illegal to use a categorical exclusion, we could go back and challenge categorical exclusions” used in crafting air tour management plans at other parks, he said.  

If this happens, the debate around ATMPs will likely continue for some time. 

Previous Traveler articles pertaining to air tour management plans in the National Park System:

National Parks Proposing To Ban, Significantly Cut Back Commercial Air Tours

Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial Move To Ban Air Tours

Traveler’s View: NPS Must Take A Closer Look At Air Tours

Helicopter Industry Lobbying Against Proposed Cuts In National Park Air Tours

Haleakalā National Park Finalizes Air Tour Management Plan

National Park Service Proposes Air Tour Ban Over Bandelier National Monument

Air Tour Management Plans Adopted For Arches, Canyonlands, And Natural Bridges

National Park Air Tour Management Plans In California Challenged In Court

Bryce Canyon National Park Releases Air Tour Management Plan

Court Orders National Park Service, Federal Aviation Administration To Develop Air Tour Guidelines

NPS Explains Approach To Crafting Air Management Tours At Bryce Canyon National Park

FAA, NPS Running Behind On Finalizing Air Tour Management Plans For Parks

National Park Service, FAA Ordered To Explain Delays With Air Tour Plans

National Park Service Silent On Charges It’s Skirting Environmental Laws With Air Tour Plans

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