Pilots flying tourists over national parks face new rules. None are stricter than at Mount Rushmore

Fewer planes and helicopters will fly tourists over Mount Rushmore and other national monuments and parks as new regulations take effect aimed at protecting the tranquility of some of the most beloved natural areas in the United States.

Air travel has pitted tour operators against visitors frustrated by the noise for decades, but it is coming to a head as new management plans are rolled out at nearly two dozen national parks and monuments.

One of the strictest yet was recently announced at Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park, where tour flights will effectively be banned from coming within half a mile of the South Dakota sites starting in April.

“I don't know what else we can save,” lamented Mark Schlaefli, co-owner of Black Hills Aerial Adventures, which is looking for alternate routes.

The regulations follow a federal appeals court ruling three years ago that the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration failed to enforce a 2000 law regulating commercial air travel over the parks and some tribal lands. A schedule for setting rules has been established, and many of these have now been finalized.

But now an industry group is looking at lawsuits, and an environmental coalition has already filed a lawsuit over one plan. The issue has become so controversial that a congressional oversight hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Critics say the whir of the helicopters' blades drowns out the sounds of birds, bubbling lava and babbling streams. That, in turn, disrupts the experiences of visitors and the tribes who call the land around the parks home.

“Is that fair?” asked Kristen Brengel of the National Parks Conservation Association, noting that the number of visitors on the ground far exceeds the number of visitors overhead. “I do not think so.”

The airlines claim they provide unparalleled access, especially for the elderly and disabled.

“Absolutely thrilling, an exhilarating experience” is how Bailey Wood, a spokesperson for the Helicopter Association International, described them.

Sightseeing flights started in the 1930s when the crews building the massive Hoover Dam asked the helicopter pilots working on the project to give their families flyovers, Wood said.

“It started from there,” he said, jokingly adding, “Sorry, aviation pun.”

The issue reached a tipping point at the Grand Canyon in 1986 when two tour planes collided over the national park in Arizona, killing 25 people. Congress acted the following year and a plan was adopted to designate routes and minimum altitude for canyon flights.

Congress passed a new round of legislation in 2000 aimed at establishing regulations in other national parks. But bureaucratic issues and delays led to non-compliance.

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono have filed a lawsuit demanding that something be done. Historically, some of the country's busiest spots for tour operators have been Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and Haleakala National Park.

In 2020, a federal court ordered compliance in 23 national parks, including popular locations such as Glacier in Montana, Arches in Utah and Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. That same year, the latest for which data is available, 15,624 air trips were reported, a decline of about 30% due to the pandemic, the park service said.

Most parks have had plans or voluntary agreements adopted as of this month, although not all have yet come into effect. Five are still being worked on, the park service said.

Parks exempt from development plans include parks with few flights and parks in Alaska, where small planes are often the only way to get around.

“Overall, the plans have been quite generous to the industry, allowing them to continue as they have in the past with some limited air travel around these parks,” said Peter Jenkins, senior council for government personnel for environmental responsibility.

His group went to court over a plan to allow a total of about 2,500 flights over the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and other nearby parks, citing an inadequate environmental review.

Then came last month's announcement about restrictions for Mount Rushmore and the Badlands.

“This is not a management plan,” complained Ray Jilek, owner of Eagle Aviation Inc. and chief pilot. “As far as I'm concerned, this is a cease-and-desist plan.”

Andrew Busse of Black Hills Helicopter Inc. said its tours already don't fly directly over Mount Rushmore. The park is relatively small, so the monument to the country's presidents is still visible from beyond its borders, he said.

The plans are aimed at taking tribal wishes into account. But Shawn Bordeaux, a Democratic state lawmaker in South Dakota and a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, said he has heard no complaints.

“We don't want them flying around watching our sun dances or ceremonies or anything like that,” he said. “But as far as tourism is concerned, I don't see why this is a problem.”

A similarly strict plan has been proposed for Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. Bruce Adams, owner of Southwest Safaris, flies tourists in a fixed-wing plane several times a week over the area known for homes carved into the soft rock walls.

“Changing the route will force me to fly over Pueblo tribal areas, which I have diligently avoided for 49 years because I know it will cause noise problems,” he said.

Glacier National Park, meanwhile, will cancel flights by the end of 2029.

Wood said the process is “broken and rushed” and threatens to put some operators out of business.

“Litigation is a tool that is certainly being considered,” he said.

But Brengel of the National Parks Conservation Association said the resistance isn't gaining much traction. An amendment to the FAA reauthorization law, which would have required the agency to consider the economics of commercial air travel over national parks, failed in July, she said.

“People go to Arches, people go to Hawaii to hear the sights and sounds of these places,” Brengel said. “It's so completely clear that the vast majority of people who go to these parks are not going to hear the sounds of the parks. helicopters overhead.”