At most of the places where the National Park Service and FAA have commenced air tour management planning (ATMP), there is already a deeply entrenched local air tour economy, as well as a visitor expectation that they can take flight in order to see the beauty from above. The Grand Canyon is of course the Mother of All Overflight Controversies; similarly, the the Black Hills/Mt. Rushmore and Hawaii Volcanoes ATMPs also dove into situations where thousands of annual flights were already taking place.
But now for something completely different: At Mt. Rainier National Park near Seattle, only 114 flights are currently allowed each year, with actual numbers apparently lower. This provides a rare opportunity to give real consideration to Alternatives that truly maintain natural quiet on the mountain. The Park is currently accepting comments on a set of draft alternatives for use in the ongoing EIS process. Two of the proposed alternatives would greatly reduce noise in the park backcountry: Alternative 1 simply bans all flights over the park, and Alternative 4 keeps planes to the far periphery of the park, and at high altitudes. Alternative 3 allows 55 flights per year to circle the peak, and introduces the NPS’s recent innovation (being spearheaded at the Grand Canyon) of setting aside no-fly times – in this case, weekends, and sunrise/sunset on Monday-Thursday, and keeps planes at 2000 feet or more. Alternative 2 maintains current use patterns around the peak, capping flights at 114 per year.
Truthfully, any of these options will maintain Mt. Rainier as a place where hikers can experience the natural soundscape with minimal intrusion. But, the opportunity to establish a precedent for keeping commercial air tours out of relatively pristine National Park lands is one that is worth keeping on the table; we encourage support for the inclusion of the “no air tours” alternative. Comments are being accepted through May 16.
And remember, comments are being accepted through early June on Draft Alternatives at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, too. There, Alternatives range from 28,000 flights per year to “no air tours” (though this will allow flights around the periphery, and over 5000 feet within the park). You can read about the process and comment here, and you can download the alternatives here.