Air Tour Management Plans in Canyonlands, Arches and Bryce NPs

The National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 (NPATMA) governs commercial air tours over national parks, and tribal lands within or abutting national parks, and establishes oversight authority by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the operators wishing to conduct such tours. The Act requires that the FAA, and the National Park Service (NPS), jointly develop Air Tour Management Plan (ATMPs) for park or tribal lands within or abutting a National Park where air tour operations occur or are proposed. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 amended the Act to allow the FAA and the NPS to enter into voluntary agreements (VAs) with air tour operators as an alternative to developing ATMPs. Learn more here

“On February 14, 2019, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Hawaii Coalition Malama Pono filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit seeking to have the FAA and the NPS complete air tour management plans or voluntary agreements at seven specified parks. On May 1, 2020, the Court granted the petition and ordered the FAA and the NPS to file a proposed schedule within 120 days for bringing 23 parks into compliance with NPATMA within two years or to provide specific concrete reasons why it would take longer. The agencies will also be required to submit quarterly updates on their Progress.”

In accordance, a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis was completed, as were other studies related to the impact on Tribal lands, visitor experiences, and noise. The National Park Service opened the required month-long public comment period on September 3, 2021. Though the comment period will have ended before The Sierran is published, however we want Sierra Club members to know of ongoing work occurring out of the public eye. Sierra Club member Jim Catlin, with assistance from Carly Ferro, submitted the following comments on behalf of the Utah Sierra Club for Canyonlands National Park.

We ask the National Park Service to integrate these ideas into these air tour management plans:

  • The NPS should be the lead agency in making this decision. FAA should act in cooperation with the NPS.
  • This decision constitutes a significant federal action requiring an EIS (environmental impact statement) and full public participation. Among the alternatives, a “no air tour” alternative should be considered.
  • NPS has more information about noise from aircraft in the parks than is presented in the plans. Full disclosure of the monitoring and key findings should be presented.
  • The plan should focus on restoring and protecting natural sounds, a resource the NPS is mandated to protect. All management decisions need to consider limiting aircraft use to levels that achieve this goal.
  • This aircraft tour plan also needs to incorporate Native American information on cultural landscapes and make route and flight changes to protect these values.
  • Each park unit should develop a soundscape plan that emphasizes protecting natural soundscapes. Such a plan should identify maximum aircraft noise levels that can occur, and the natural soundscape shall be maintained. Aircraft flying elevations and routes should be designed to maintain these sound standards.
  • In the interim, winged aircraft should be kept above 2,900 feet elevation above ground.
  • Helicopters are not permitted by this management plan.
  • Air tour routes should avoid backcountry areas as much as possible.
  • The National Park Service should involve volunteer citizen scientists in activities to monitor aircraft flight patterns and noise within the park.
  • We support using noise reduction technology that is proven to let aircraft meet noise standards for National Park units.

Jim Catlin has been active in public land issues for more than 25 years. He founded the Wild Utah Project to support the work of other Utah conservation groups. In addition to overseeing data collection and analysis necessary for reserve design projects in Utah, Jim provided GIS support and scientific analysis for fellow Utah environmental and conservation organizations. He served for six years on the national board of directors of the Sierra Club, and was a member of the Executive Committee.