PARKS:

Overflight controversy extends to wilderness-rich Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier National Park officials are considering setting strict limits on the number of commercial flight tours over the park -- or banning the business altogether -- in hopes of preserving the natural tranquility visitors seek at the 236,000-acre site in southwest Washington.

Planners at the National Park Service and Federal Aviation Administration are jointly crafting what would become the first air tour management plan for a national park since Congress mandated such plans a decade ago.

The agencies' yet-to-be-released environmental assessment (EA) will gauge the impact of commercial air tour operations on visitor experiences at the volcanic park, 97 percent of which is designated wilderness.

At the same time, the plan will evaluate the safety of flying around the 14,410-foot mountain where small aircraft accidents claimed 68 lives over the past 50 years.

"Flying at Mount Rainier is difficult under even the best of circumstances," said Sean Smith, policy director at the National Parks Conservation Association and a licensed pilot.

In addition to safety issues, park biologists will consider the effects of airplane and helicopter noise on wildlife, including pika, mountain goats and the northern spotted owl.

"Given the iconic wilderness that surrounds Mount Rainier, sightseeing overflights -- if not properly managed -- can disrupt natural sounds, dislocate wildlife and reduce visitor enjoyment," Smith said.

Five companies are currently authorized to conduct flight tours over Mount Rainier under an interim operating agreement with FAA, according to the agency. Their licenses allow for up to 114 tours per year, although in recent years fewer tours have occurred due to the poor economy and other factors, officials said.

The largest tour providers are Vashon Island Air and Classic Helicopter Corp., both based in Seattle.

Linda Kirkish, of Vashon, said she was unaware of the aviation planning process at Mount Rainier, but she did not think her company's overflights had a measurable effect on visitors or wildlife at the park. "I can't imagine any impact our little four-seater aircraft could have on anything," she said, adding that the firm had recently scaled back its tours to Mount Rainier. "We're miles from the actual mountain."

E-mails to officials with Classic Helicopter, the largest provider of helicopter tours at the park, were not returned.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency received more than 700 comments by yesterday's scoping deadline, including comments from individuals, environmental groups and other organizations. The agencies hope to issue a draft EA by spring 2011, he said.

No-flight option?

NPCA's Smith rejected claims that air tours do not affect visitor experiences, even if operators keep aircraft miles from the mountain.

For one, the park is a giant square -- about 20 miles wide by 20 miles long -- so visitors notice overflights even if planes avoid the mountain itself, he said.

"At 235,625 acres, Mount Rainier is a relatively small park," Smith wrote in comments submitted to the agencies. "Because of the small size, concentrating visitors and with nearly half the park in subalpine, alpine or ice environments, air tour noise has the ability to impact large sections of the park, as well as most park visitors."

In other comments, NPCA recommended that the agencies consider a "no-flight" alternative in their environmental planning and that a more comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) should be used to evaluate impacts rather than an EA.

While air tour management plans are only supposed to regulate commercial air tour flights under 5,000 feet in altitude, the group recommended flights maintain a minimum altitude of 5,000 feet for safety reasons and to limit noise for park visitors.

"Noise has the ability to pull one out of your experience," Smith said. "If there is a continual buzz or drone overhead, it makes you think more about your e-mails or whether you have to do your laundry."

And prohibiting aircraft from the park's airspace would not necessarily end air tours, as the mountain can be seen from miles away, Smith said.

Bureaucratic wrangling

Mount Rainier is one of nearly 90 national park units required under the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 to develop air tour management plans, yet it is not the busiest park for such tours. Grand Canyon National Park hosts tens of thousands of air tours annually.

Other parks supporting air tours include Mount Rushmore, Badlands, Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala and Death Valley, said FAA's Gregor. More recently, planning has been initiated at the Statue of Liberty and Governors Island national monuments and Petrified Forest National Park.

But bureaucratic wrangling has hampered progress on many plans, even as air tour companies seek to expand operations to park units that conservation advocates say are ill-suited for such tourism.

"There's been a bit of a conflict between FAA and the Park Service as to who should determine what level of noise is detrimental to a park," said Tom Hill, director of special projects at NPCA. "It's unfortunate that after all this time has passed that there are no air tour plans in place."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in March sought to tighten restrictions on Grand Canyon overflights, which are governed by a separate law known as the National Parks Overflights Act of 1987. But he withdrew the controversial provision, offered in an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill, after it met resistance from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) (Land Letter, March 25).

Another amendment in the Senate bill, by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D), did pass, giving NPS clearer authority to determine the appropriate number of flights over national parks. FAA, the lead agency in air tour planning, would primarily oversee safety.

Wyden's amendment -- which is not included in the House version of the bill -- also gives the Park Service authority to deny air tours over Crater Lake National Park without completing an air tour management plan. An earlier version of the amendment supported by NPCA would have extended such authority to all park units.

"There are places where, on its face, it is clearly inappropriate to allow air tours," Hill said. He cited Gettysburg National Military Park and other cemeteries as examples of park units where air tour management plans should not be required for NPS to deny flight applications.

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