By Craig Sailor / The News Tribune
Should visitors to Washington National Parks only hear owls and howler elk, or are the sounds of low-flying planes also part of the experience?
The administrators of the Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration, are developing policies to determine the future of commercial tourist flights over the two parks.
A consortium of 28 state environmental groups made it clear how many air routes they would like to see in the two parks: zero. They believe that the sound and sight of low-flying planes is incompatible with the natural experiences that the parks have to offer.
“These rainforests can be so calm,” said Rob Smith, director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a Seattle-based non-governmental rights organization. “A little airplane noise goes a long way.”
Olympic and Mount Rainier, along with Everglades and Death Valley, are the first of 23 US national parks tasked by a federal court with developing aerial tour management plans tailored to each park individually.
Temporary policies are in place in some parks. The new policies would only govern commercial tourist flights and not private recreational flights, commercial airlines or military flights.
The public consultation and meeting phases for the Rainier and Olympic plans have been completed. Now it is up to NPS and FAA officials to decide what these aerial tour plans will look like.
Management plans can limit the number of thefts in a given period or prohibit them altogether. The plans can also regulate the altitudes and routes taken and mitigate noise, visual or other impacts.
Washington’s two parks (the state’s other national park, North Cascades, is not under review) have relatively low theft counts. Mount Rainier sees on average only one commercial tourist flight per year, while Olympic averages 64, according to park officials.
Compare that with Grand Canyon National Park which hosts some 50,000 flights a year and has a long, controversial and tragic history with them. The number of thefts and accidents there ultimately resulted in a plan specifically for the canyon.
So why bother with Rainier and Olympic?
Both parks were wiped out in the wake of nearly 20 years of infighting between the FAA and the NPS after being mandated by Congress in 2000 to develop aerial touring policies.
In 2020, after being sued by two environmental groups, a federal court ruled that the NPS and FAA had engaged in “disappointing – and ultimately unsuccessful – efforts” to regulate aerial tours over national parks. The court ruled that the two bickering agencies must promptly come up with an aerial tour management plan for 23 specific parks.
Two of them were Rainier and Olympic.
Mount Rainier National Park
Current Mount Rainier policy regulates aerial tours in an area that extends half a mile beyond the park boundaries and keeps planes less than 5,000 feet above ground level.
This essentially leaves a narrow ring around the mountain, as typical tourist planes and helicopters cannot fly at the altitude of 19,400 feet necessary to pass above the peak of 14,411 feet.
It’s relatively small airspace above the 236,000-acre park, but it’s significant space, Smith said.
“This is something the park can actually control for the sake of naturalness, wilderness, natural sounds and calm,” he said.
There are plenty of opportunities to view the volcano from the air, Smith said.
“You can have a great view of Mount Rainier and not fly over the park,” he said. “Alaska Airlines does it every day. “
The consortium groups opposed to the thefts said a zero theft policy was not being considered by the NPS. The proposed plan foresees at least one flight per year.
“Well, why don’t we take the next step and say, ‘What if there isn’t? ”Smith said.
Teri Tucker, planning and compliance manager at Mount Rainier National Park, said a no-fly option was still on the table, even though the draft management plan called for at least one theft. This was based on the historical average of a flight, she said.
The public comment period ended on August 28.
“One of the things we heard from a lot of people was that they would like the park to consider an option for airless tours,” she said.
Currently, two air tour operators, Rite Bros Aviation in Port Angeles and Classic Helicopter in Auburn, have a voluntary agreement with the park to operate no more than 34 flights per year. Only Rite Bros. performed the rare tour and Classic has not reported any flights over the park since 2013.
The FAA plays the primary role in determining the final plan, Tucker said, but it’s the NPS that puts their hiking boots on the ground and examines the impact on visitors and the environment. Some impacts are not so obvious.
“There are things that are less tangible … natural sounds or the ability to have a particular type of experience in nature,” Tucker said. “97 percent of Mount Rainier is designated as a wilderness area, we certainly consider that when we are developing the air circuit management plan. “
Olympic National Park
While the orders to formulate air circuit management plans have come from the highest levels of government, the answer comes from the hollow, moss-covered forests of the Olympic National Park.
This is where the quietest place in America is. There is no official governing body that makes such statements, but that’s what One Square Inch of Silence founder Gordon Hempton called a place in the Hoh Rainforest.
“I don’t want to hear any noise,” said Christina Miller, the park’s planning and compliance program manager. “I don’t care if it’s planes, cars or someone out in the wild with their ukulele. I want to hear natural sounds.
The new plan for the aerial tour of the park will not be up to Miller. It will come, like Rainier’s, after reading public comments, concluding environmental and other impact studies, and signing a hierarchy of NPS managers. And all of this must be approved by the FAA.
With the lowest altitude of the Olympic Mountains (Mount Olympus rises to 7,980 feet) and its 73 miles of breathtaking coastline, scenic flights have more of an opportunity to soar over the park’s 922,000 acres compared to Rainier.
Scenic flights have been in operation for decades at Olympic, Miller said.
Many of these flights are operated by Rite Bros. The company has an agreement with the park to perform up to 76 flights per year.
Jeff Well, the owner of Rite Bros. has said he’s set to use up all of that allotment for this year. A no-fly policy at Olympic would hurt his business.
“I don’t know where they got that number (76 flights) from in the first place,” Well said.
Well has walked a lot in the park and knows what loneliness is like.
“I try to be as quick and discreet as possible,” he said.
He flies his Cessna aircraft at no less than 2,000 feet above the ground and generally well above 3,000 feet, he said. The majesty of a mountain cannot be appreciated if you are too close to it, he said.
“It’s the entire landscape,” Well said. “With the ocean in the background, and the sky and the clouds and everything.”
The recent air noise complaints at Olympic did not come from commercial flights, Miller said.
“Our biggest problem here has been the military overflights and the increased training and the (US Navy) Growlers which are louder,” Miller said. “We had no complaints about our aerial tours.”
An aerial tour management plan that doesn’t allow for any tours at all is a possibility at Olympic, Miller said.
The clock is turning. In May 2020, the court gave the FAA and NPS two years to bring the 23 parks into compliance with the original Congressional Act of 2000.
For Smith and other Washington conservation allies, Rainier and Olympic National Parks should provide respite from the sounds of the unnatural world.
“This is where you can really hear the nature, hear the wildlife, hear the streams, hear the wind in the trees,” he said. “We shouldn’t let the same sounds of big cities follow us into nature. “