Reader Participation Day: Do You Believe There Should Be Overflight Tours of National Parks?

This June 2007 map highlights air tour roots over the Grand Canyon. The green-shaded areas reflects proposed wilderness. For a larger, higher resolution map, visit

Have you ever had the itch to fly over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter? Do you want a bird's eye view of Crater Lake? Or do you believe the airspace over national parks should be reserved strictly for, well, the birds?

That seems to be a burning question these days, as outrage is smoldering over a helicopter tour company's desire to fly upwards of 300 scenic tours a year over Crater Lake National Park, and as the Federal Aviation Administration and National Park Service try to figure out just who has jurisdiction over the air space over Grand Canyon National Park.

Those are the just the two latest hotspots in the park system that are grappling with overflights. There are dozens, literally dozens, more. So what do you think? Should the air space over the national parks be off-limits to air tours, or is there a role for these excursions that should be accommodated?


There should be a no-fly zone over national parks. Families go there to relax, get back to nature and to enjoy the complete beauty our national parks hold. This would be greatly disturbed by aircraft buzzing over them. Pictures could not be the same. "Waiting for the airplane/helicopter to get out of the shot" would bring stress to what is now an awesome experience. People do not spend enough quality time together (or in solitude) in this hustle and bustle world we live in. Adding noise and unnatural objects flying thru the airspace only brings a fast and chaotic world into the parks that are now an escape.

I would rather have them in the air than on the ground. The plane-going sightseers are the ones that drive around all day stopping for an instant for pictures and standing in line to piss.

Once again, here's a clear and present example of a conflict between resource protection and economic opportunity.

In today's fast-paced world, many potential park visitors opt to fly over the park from a distant location than drive to it. Approval of helicopter overflights to Crater Lake would be a net economic benefit for the air-tourism industry of Bend, Oregon. The current proposal includes entering park air-space from the remote northeastern sector of the park and excludes flying into or directly over the caldera, but if the pilots are tipped handsomely, there's no way to enforce the flight plan once this activity is permitted.

However, if there's enough public support to keep the airshed above parks free of mechanical intrusions, the value of parks as a "most sacred place" will be preserved.

I am a proponent of managing the inner caldera of Crater Lake as wilderness, which means no helicopter tours over the park and no motorized tour boats as well. These commercial tour boats, although promoted by the NPS and the park concessioner for many decades as having educational value, have been enlarged to the point that their motors can now be heard by hikers roaming along the caldera rim. They create a wake that disturbs the glass-like calm surface of the early morning reflections on Crater Lake.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

The helicopter flights available at Bryce Canyon travel over mostly inaccessible areas of the park and fly fairly high above the rim and in my experience as a guide there do not disturb visitors in the main viewing areas or on trails. In other parks it could be a different story, so I'd say making policy on a case by case basis would be the best way to proceed. One size fits all is not the best way to manage anything.

If the FAA would truly work with the NPS cooperatively in management of overflights, there is a possibility overflights could occur over National Parks under certain circumstances. However, since the FAA has other priorities and there is a low priority placed by them on protection of park resources, including visitor experiences and natural sound, I believe the NPS should continue its efforts to have the strongest say in management or exclusion of overflights of national parks. As Boyd Evison once pointed out, our National Parks represent less than 1% of the land mass of the United States (lower 48). Is it really asking too much that these places be different than the rest of the lands of the United States?

Life in the United States is complicated, stressful, and for most of us, noisy. The pressures most of us experience on a day to day basis are more than just "quality of life" issues. Over time they are threatening to life itself. It is fundamental to our physical health, not to mention our psychological and spiritual well-being that we have access to at least occasional respite from these pressures and visits to national parks should be seen as such. The ability to have an experience that as closely as possible approximates a truly natural environment is something that national parks can offer and they should be managed in a manner that guarantees this. Air tours that pass over national parks violate this principle, serving to distract thousands while entertaining a few. They should not be permitted. Unfortunately the FAA cannot be depended upon to help. Its mandate to regulate and promote civil air transport is in conflict with itself and the sympathies of FAA career managers has always tilted toward the promotion side.

When I moved from Grand Canyon National Park in 1996 to Harpers Ferry, WV, it was sad to note how much quieter it was in suburban West Virginia.

Air tours are not the only distraction that breaks the bond between park visitors and the park experience. Tour buses, motorcycles, generators, portable radios or CD players and cell phones are culprits as well and park managers should be given the tools necessary to limit their impacts.

I would suggest a reading of Marc Reisner's book, Cadillac Desert, especially the portions on Floyd Dominy (BOR commish. from '59-'69) to understand the mentality of a government agency such as the FAA. The FAA will never relinquish control of "air space" over the national parks or allow others to suggest what they should do with it unless congressionally mandated. The National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 just isn't going to do it. This is what the FAA was set up to do, so, you can't necessarily blame them or the NPS.

Bureaucracy is not an obstacle to democracy but an inevitable complement to it. -- Joseph A. Schumpeter, 1883-1950, Austrian-American Economist

Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
Robert Mutch Photography

Years ago at Big Cypress National Preserve once and a while military fighter jets would make low altitude high speed flyovers when I was deep in the swamps there. To me these were "proud to be an American" moments as the immense power eminating from their freedom protecting engines filled my being during their rapid approach, passover and exit to the horizon. Then quickly it was over and the stillness returned. Being ex-Air Force this didn't bother me and it reminded there are a lot of fellow Americans protecting us all every minute of every day. I haven't seen or heard them for years and was told that a law or rule was passed preventing military flights over this region. Nowadays though I more frequently view and hear NPS helicopters and fixed wing aircraft operating for longer periods of time at much lower altitudes (e.g. treetop level) doing whatever they feel they need to do. I'm sure some missions involve Panther telemetry surveillance. It is obvious when you see the airplane circling a lone swamp hammock 5 or 6 times about 80 feet off the ground. I always feel sorry for the Panther being harassed. I always figure 1 pass should be sufficient but what do I know. Many times NPS choppers have hovered above me as I hunted deer in Big Cypress. At first I thought they were trying to scare the deer away but now I look forward to these hovering choppers. They do actually put the neighberhood deer on the move. The last 4 incidents have yielded 2 deer in the bag for me since I've learned the deer's response and now always start ground stalks about 5 minutes after these incidents which always seems to produce sightings of from 4 to 5 deer with legal bucks being present at least 1/2 of the time.
As far as commercial overflights are concerned I believe folks should be empathetic to all Americans needs.Those that aren't as fortunate as myself or others to be able to spend days and days in these glorious places should be afforded and supported in seeing and experiencing our National treasure in the manner that works best for them. Those not supporting people lacking the time to see this treasure over a shorter time span and at higher speed via air travel could or will be perceived elitist snobs.
I feel it would be a disservice to NPS if more "airshed" duties were thrust upon them since they have more to do now than their budget will allow them to do effectively. Mr. Fagergren should be aware of this since he used to be the superintendent at Big Cypress.
I would recommend those worried to lighten up since the sounds come and go rather quickly.
Heck in the Addition Land plans at Big Cypress out for review now NPS has seen fit to propose Wilderness designation along both sides of Interstate 75 for 20 miles between Ft. Lauderdale and Naples Fl. The noise from 23,000 cars and semi- trucks per day that travel the road will be continually penetrating up to 5 miles deep into this Wilderness i865t along both sides of this highway, if it is eventually proposed. If these noise levels exceeding 100 db at roadside are acceptable according to NPS's own Wilderness criteria it seems a bit disenguine or hypocritical to be complaining about less noisy commercial oveflights unless one has a hidden agenda contained below the surface of their public comments either here or elsewhere.

I have to agree with Gary. I too moved from the Grand Canyon to a suburban area and it is also quieter than my house within Grand Canyon National Park. Traffic, sirens, helicopters, machinery - the South Rim village is never quiet.

Kurt, my opinion is they should be allowed with many restrictions. Limit the number of flights, the types of air craft and helicopters, and most importantly limit the noise. Make it tough on the operators by requiring some sort of ultra quiet standard so they are not disturbing the park any more than a bird flying over. And maybe tax the crap out of them so the taxes collected go to parks directly.
Dave Crowl

I agree with Dave completely. If they're going to take away from the park (peace & solitude), then they damn well better be giving back (pay for back logged repairs at the park) Tax the heck out of em'

Check out this article, posted on Oregon Live

Several conservation groups today sent a letter to federal officials warning that a proposal to allow helicopter tours of Crater Lake National Park could be illegal. Noise from the helicopters would shatter the peaceful beauty of Oregon's only national park, and could further disturb nesting areas of endangered spotted owls, the group says.

"Oregon needs to do a better job of protecting our natural treasures," said Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator with Oregon Wild, which joined with Umpqua Watersheds and the Crater Lake Instititue in submitting the letter to the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The federal agencies are considering a permit request by Bend-based Leading Edge Aviation to fly 300 tours yearly within 1,000 feet of the crater rim.

The permit request quickly came under fire.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Noise from the helicopters would shatter the peaceful beauty of Oregon's only national park

Owen, you worked at Crater Lake, right? Did we work at the same park? Do you honestly believe the Waragonian's line about "peaceful" beauty? Did you miss my last post with the pictures of noisy road and Rim Village construction? How about the photos of the noisy boat tours?

I don't want any extra noise at Crater Lake any more than the next person, but for Pete's sake, can we please stop repeating the myth that Crater Lake is pristine and serene? That's a big, warm load of BS.

The "peaceful beauty" is shattered everyday by thousands of cars, several boats, dump trucks, submarines, research boats, tour boats; my god I don't have the energy to repeat the HUGE list of things that have been shattering Crater Lake's mythical peace for the last century.

The myth must stop.

Blue silence, O lake of silent blue, -
within your sapphired deeps the gods have fought
titanic battles. Now an azured peace
broods over your bestudded, jewelled breasts;
a peace that only those can know who cease
to struggle after cataclysmic waves
engulf their burning, cratered hearts. The rush
of molten lava filled the fissures where
the crush of titans wracked your battle-tortured soul.
Yet here, today, beneath cerulean, nimbused sky,
you lie so still in torquoised dreams, you lure
my mind to rest upon your sculptured loveliness
and see your deep serenity become my constant goal.
--- Crater Lake, Wesley La Violette, Nature Notes, Vol. 6, No. 4, Sep. 1933

Regular helicopter flights over Crater Lake National Park would be one more step away from the feelings the author expressed in this poem. Thanks so much for the posting Owen and for your positive outlook, encouragement and hard work.