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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

National Park Service’s Latest Balancing Act: Commercial Air Tours vs. The Environment

A photo of Arches National Park.
Courtesy of Arches National Park
Skyline Arch at Arches National Park. The Park Service is looking for public comment on air tour management plans for several parks across the country, including four in Utah.

The National Park Service is working on plans to manage commercial flight tours at various parks throughout the country, including four in Utah. This effort started over 20 years ago and opened this month for public comment.

The draft plans define things such as routes planes can take, when they can fly and at what altitude. Park officials are in the middle of holding a series of virtual public meetings for Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Natural Bridges National Monument.

Arches Park Superintendent Patty Trap said they need to protect resources while also allowing opportunities for various recreational activities.

“The draft plan balances preservation with access and recognizes that the airspace above the park should be managed with our unique resources in mind,” she said at the Arches public meeting on Monday.

The National Park Air Tour Management Act was passed in 2000 and required the Federal Aviation Administration to work with the NPS to make these plans. An order last year from the U.S. Court of Appeals has forced the agencies to comply with the act.

Eric Elmore, with the Office of Environment and Energy at the FAA, said they've worked on the plans but had a difficult time completing them in the last 20 years.

“The agencies are currently redoubling our efforts in order to get the air tour management plans completed at the 23 parks that were eligible under the court order,” he said at the Monday meeting. “We have been working on it and now we're just making sure that we get something done this time.”

Jim Catlin, a volunteer with the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, said he’s glad rules are finally being defined. He said there are good aspects of the plans, like altitude requirements, that can help the visitor have a quieter experience.

“I often will see these planes flying overhead, and it takes me away from the moment, from what I was doing and from the enjoyment of the place,” he said. “[Quietness] is a value that we are losing in America and we need to protect that value, it ends up being an important component in our lives and in these places.”

However, Catlin said the plans could go further in protecting the parks, especially backcountry areas. He said national parks aren’t meant to serve as a commercial resource.

“When it comes to a conflict between quiet, a conflict between protecting the scenery and protecting the ecosystem of the park, the Park Service must take action to give priority to that protection,” he said.

Public comment for the proposed air tour management plans is open until Oct. 3.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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