'Flight-seeing' Puts Peace of National Parks Up in the Air

The federal government has been asked to regulate tourist planes and helicopters

WHEN hiker and naturalist Enos Mills founded Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, he sought to protect the area's magnificent peaks and pristine valleys from encroaching settlers, miners, ranchers, and railroads.

Mr. Mills could never have foreseen the battle now brewing over his beloved sanctuary.

Rocky Mountain National Park is now at the center of a national dispute over "flight-seeing," an increasingly popular tourist trade that allows people to view natural wonders - from the Hawaiian volcanoes to the Grand Canyon - from helicopters and small airplanes.

"There's no way Mills could have known that this park would be threatened from above, so there's nothing in the park mandate about airplanes and helicopters," says Jim Disney, a local official, avid rock climber, and one of many locals opposed to plans to begin sightseeing flights here.

"But it's obvious that the noise and visual intrusion that airplanes and helicopters bring are incompatible with the reasons this park was set aside," Mr. Disney adds. "People come here to listen to the streams, to hear the birds, or just experience the silence. They don't come here to listen to the 'whomp-whomp-whomp' of helicopters."

With the support of local and state officials, the Park Service has asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air travel, to place a preemptive ban on flight-seeing tours over "the Rocky," as the park is called locally. If adopted, the ban would be the first of its kind for a major national park.

FAA officials will not comment on the proposed ban, other than to say "the matter is under consideration." Later this spring, however, the agency is expected to release a series of new rules designed to make air-tour traffic over the Grand Canyon, by far the busiest flight-seeing destination, safer and quieter. Those rules are the first stage in the formation of the first nationwide policy regarding tour overflights of national parks.

Congress mandated such a process in 1987, after 25 people were killed in a highly publicized tour-flight crash over the Grand Canyon the year before. Under the 1987 National Parks Overflights Act, Congress directed the Park Service and the FAA to study the issue and come up with solutions.

In the meantime, the issue of safety has not gone away. In the last five years there have been 17 crashes inside national park boundaries. The worst accidents were in Hawaii, where 46 people were injured and 37 killed in tour-flight crashes between 1991 and 1993.

Though the FAA is being tight-lipped about what the new Grand Canyon regulations will include, many in the tour-flight industry are already calling the new rules unnecessary. They point out that voluntary safety and noise-abatement efforts have dramatically reduced the number of accidents and complaints about noise.

"We've already given up flying over 85 percent of the Grand Canyon through voluntary agreements," says Elling Halverson, a longtime Grand Canyon tour operator based in Tusayan, Ariz.

"In fact, the vast majority of people who come to the Grand Canyon will never see or hear a tour flight," Mr. Halverson says. "Most people drive or hike along the south rim and we don't fly there. So, for the most part, the existing rules work."

Park officials counter that since a voluntary agreement was enacted in 1983 between the park service and tour operators, air traffic around the park has increased dramatically. The agreement prescribed flight routes and altitudes but didn't take into account the large volume of air traffic and staffing needed to enforce it. In a report released last fall, the Park Service recommends a 15-year phase-in of quieter engines and the expansion of several "flight-free zones" throughout the park, among other things.

Though Halverson points to quiet-engine technology as a solution, many in the tour industry see such regulation as overkill. They say flight-seeing is a quick, cheap, and environmentally friendly way to see natural splendor.

"Helicopters are, in fact, the least intrusive way to see the park," says Frank Jensen, president of Helicopter Association International, based in Arlington, Va. "They don't litter, leave footprints, or bring in nonnative seeds via boot treads."

Still, numerous studies show overflights do impinge on nature. Noisy planes can startle wild animals and interrupt critical feeding, nesting, and calving periods, experts say. Migratory birds flushed during feeding stops, for example, might not store up enough energy to survive their round-trip voyages, notes Doug Gladwin, a wildlife biologist and pilot who has studied overflights for two decades.

"Overflights just add stress to already stressful environments for wildlife," adds Mr. Gladwin, one of the authors of the Park Service report. But Gladwin says park officials and tour operators can find ways to alleviate that stress.

In Banff National Park in Canada, for example, a private tour operator hired Parks Canada (the equivalent to the US Park Service) to map out habitat for grizzly bears, mountain goats, and mountain sheep. Then the company hired Gladwin to route helicopters around or far above important wildlife habitats at critical feeding and nesting times.

In the absence of federal regulation in the United States, a voluntary approach has been the norm, though these peacemaking pacts have often come after considerable public outcry and catastrophe.

Still, tour operators complain that federal attempts to regulate parks often misfire because they don't take into account local topography, weather, and noise conditions.

At the Kilauea Caldera, a huge crater on the big island of Hawaii, tour operators and park rangers experimented and found out that "the best way to keep noise out of the crater is to fly low around the rim, outside the park," says Dave Chevalier, owner of a helicopter tour company based in Maui.

"But then federal regulations came out that require us to fly higher, at 1,500 feet. So the noise spills into the crater."

Critics note that even with those agreements, though, there are still problems. In dozens of parks, visitors, activists, and park officials say violations of altitude advisories and prescribed flight patterns are common. Many operators, in fact, advertise "you point, we fly" services, while some camera operators pressure pilots into flying closer to wildlife or scenic spots than is safe or legal.

Even more galling, say overflight critics, is that while tour operators rattle the eardrums of hikers below, they minimize the noise for their passengers by giving them noise-canceling headphones and piping in inspiring musical soundtracks.

But tour flights don't just affect wildlife and land-locked tourists; they can also annoy communities around parks. That's one reason lawmakers in Tennessee have banned heliports within nine miles of Great Smoky National Park. But that law (along with similar measures enacted by nearby towns) is being challenged in court by flight groups who say the laws are unconstitutional encroachments on federal power to regulate air travel.

While critics of tour flights say this is a case of a few people making money at the expense of the many, industry advocates say the flight operations employ thousands in some areas and provide a needed lift to the disabled, the elderly, and others who can't take long mountain hikes.

But while "flight-seers" sometimes outnumber hikers in many remote parks, opponents argue that many of the most popular parks are accessible by road.

Part of the cause for this lingering debate lies in history. Because the Park Service was established only 13 years after the first powered flights at Kitty Hawk, N.C., the agency's mandate says nothing about controlling aviation. Since most tour flights take off outside park boundaries, the Park Service has no power to regulate them. Once the planes are in the air, they fall under the province of the FAA, which is mandated not only to manage, but also to promote air travel. These conflicting mandates are one reason, many say, this issue is still largely unresolved.

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