Bryce Canyon National Park in southwestern Utah is famous for its hoodoos, thin arrow-shaped rock formations that weave their way out of amphitheatres and into the sky. At sunrise and sunset the colors can range from deep purple to bubblegum pink and thousands of tourists come to see them each year, some by car, some on foot and some even by helicopter.
Helicopter tours are a popular way to see many national parks. However, these air tours had fairly wide latitude until recently, with no restrictions on the number of flights that could take place per year, the times that flights could take place, or even the height that planes could descend to. .
While this may seem like a priority for the National Park Service (NPS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), their plans for managing these airspaces are more than 20 years behind schedule. And although they just released a plan for Bryce Canyon in October, environmentalists say that beyond the delay, it’s also being misrepresented.
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Following several helicopter crashes in the Grand Canyon (a particularly deadly accident occurred in 1989, when a tourist plane, en route for an aerial tour, crashed just outside the Grand Canyon National Park, killing 10 tourists and injuring 11 others), Congress signed into law an Air Tours Management Act in 2000. This law required the NPS and FAA to prepare an Air Tours Management Plan , delineating the number of flights that could take place, where the flights could take place, and cruising ranges for any national park with more than 50 flights per year, all of which had not previously been established.
The Grand Canyon would be dealt with separately and quickly. However, the law provided for 23 other national parks for which the NPS and FAA were to jointly create management plans. Over 20 years later, the NPS and FAA are just beginning to do so.
The action ultimately came as a result of a court order. The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an environmental group of former and current public servants, sued the FAA in 2017 for effectively ignoring the 2000 Air Circuit Management Plan for nearly 20 years. PEER won the lawsuit, and the court set August 24, 2022 as the deadline for the FAA and NPS to release management plans for the 23 parks.
Because of this pressure, the NPS and FAA recently released a draft aerial visitation management plan for Bryce Canyon National Park, among others, which limits the number of flights per year, as well as where helicopters can fly and at what time. they can be airborne.
For Bryce Canyon National Park, the plan states that helicopters cannot fly at sunrise or sunset, less than half a mile from the ground, and limits the number of flights to 515 per year.
While these restrictions seem like a win for conservationists, many argue instead that it’s a matter of perspective, especially since the plan doesn’t assess what these parks might look like without any aerial tours.
Mike Murray, president of the Coalition to Protect National Parks, an environmental organization made up of retired NPS employees, said their group was concerned about the planning process throughout and was ultimately disappointed with the agencies’ approach. .
Instead of rating air tours with an option that doesn’t allow them at all, Murray says, the NPS and FAA instead set a minimum for pre-COVID flight numbers, maintaining the rate of flights in national parks. from 2017 to 2018. This was accomplished by claiming a “categorical exclusion”, a decision which essentially determined that these flights had no significant environmental impact and, therefore, were not worth evaluating.
However, Murray called it “a capricious use of categorical exclusion”. He argued that these air tour management plans are circumstantial and suggests there has not been enough science. “How can you know it’s not worth reviewing if you’ve never reviewed it? asked Murray.
Ultimately, Murray sees this as a band-aid solution, instead of the actual regulation expected after 20 years. “Their plans are basically to make changes to the air circuits, but don’t determine whether they should continue,” Murray explained.
In an emailed statement to The Daily Beast, the NPS summed up the decision, writing, “Each released air tour management plan includes measures that mitigate the impacts of commercial air tours on park resources, including designated routes, minimum altitudes, time-of-day restrictions, and other measures that are not included in the Provisional Operating Authority that authorized aerial tours prior to the completion of plans. They added that “[the FAA and the NPS] assessed the potential impacts of aerial tours on park resources and visitor enjoyment of those resources with respect to each aerial tour management plan and found that they had no significant resource impact of the park.
Kristin Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonprofit environmental organization that works to preserve national parks across the United States, said she was shocked by the decision and the proposal, especially as it relates to Bryce Canyon.
“Bryce Canyon is an obvious choice for restricting theft and for the NPS to send a message,” Brengel said. She added that in the draft proposal, aerial tours would still be allowed at popular viewpoints and on popular trails.
“It’s such a shame – if you’re hiking and a helicopter ride flies over you, your whole day could be easily ruined,” she said.
But what really stood out to Brengel was the process itself. By law, all preliminary proposals require a public comment period. And although the law does not specify when this public comment period is supposed to take place, in most cases this happens after the publication of the draft proposal, so that the public can express their concerns and that the plans can be adjusted accordingly.
However, that was not the case for these draft proposals, where the NPS held public comments before publishing them, a decision environmentalists say was made to intentionally limit public input.
“It was simply untrue,” Brengel said, adding that “it did not allow the public to voice their concerns about the proposed plans.”
In response, the FAA wrote via email to The Daily Beast: “An important part of the process for each park was a public comment period and town hall meetings where the agencies presented the draft plan and answered questions. The FAA has sole authority to control US airspace and scrutinize plans to ensure they comply with all safety protocols.
Brengel went so far as to say that “the FAA clearly doesn’t like regulating airspace”, calling them the main obstructionists of the law.
Murray agreed, adding that he thinks “this has all been dishonest from the start,” but still hopes the NPS and FAA will adjust their methods for the remaining parks that require aerial visitation management plans.