Reader Participation Survey: How Much Local Control Should Be Exerted Over National Parks?

Should there be more uniformity across the National Park System when it comes to regulations pertaining to such activities as air tours, mountain biking, and personal watercraft use, just to name three sensitive issues?

That question seems timely in light of the recent attempt by U.S. Sen. John McCain to legislate air-tour rules for Grand Canyon National Park. At the exact same time, Oregon's senators were trying to legislate a ban against air tours over Crater Lake National Park.

In past years the late-Sen. Craig Thomas worked to control air tours over Grand Teton National Park. Interestingly, when the National Park Service Air Management Tour Act was adopted, it contained a ban against air tours over Rocky Mountain National Park. And now Mount Rainier officials are working to rewrite their Air Tour Management Plan.

Should the National Park Service work to be more uniform on such issues? Should there be a nationwide ban against air tours over national parks, or should the current process, which can be overrun by politics as the Grand Canyon and Crater Lake matters demonstrate, continue? How much should be read into the "national" prefix to these place names?

When U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon succeeded in getting the Senate to pass their amendment banning air tours over Crater Lake, a release from their offices stated that the amendment allows the Park Service the ability to deny air tours over the park without first having to prepare an air tour management plan, as is the case with every other National Park.

“I see this as a first step in keeping our National Parks free of noise pollution that can ruin visitors’ experience of our national treasures,” Sen. Wyden said. “From today on, the precious quiet of Crater Lake will be something future generations can count on as much as we do today.”

Added Sen. Merkley: “Crater Lake is unique not only in the state of Oregon, but in the entire nation, in its natural beauty. This is an important provision to preserve this special place. Future generations should be able to travel there without noise disruptions and enjoy the same experience travelers from all over the world see today.”

Well, if that argument is good enough for Crater Lake, shouldn't it be good enough for the rest of the National Park System? Sen. Wyden didn't want to touch that question with his amendment.

"While we cannot agree on what to do about air tours over every single national park, we can agree that if we are going to ban them anywhere it should be Crater Lake," the senator stated in defending his amendment.

Comments

I think national park staff should get input from the communities that surround them and allow concessions that are in keeping with the spirit of the park. That said, I am totally against flyovers and other noisy activities because national parks should be places of nature and quiet. And the park, not the local government, senators, congressmen, or any other agency, should have the final say on what happens in and over the park.

As a long time national park visitor to many parks across the states, I see things like flyovers as the development of the fast foodization of the parks. Too lazy or out-of-shape to go hiking, then hop on a plane for a quick view. And yes, I am aware that not everyone can hike, but many parks now have handicapped accessible trails that are generally flat and have boardwalks.

I live in a housing subdivision within the boundaries of V.I. National Park. The local government's power company installed huge, unshielded bright lights along the main road across the island that shine in my windows and do heaven's know what to the wildlife. The park didn't seem to have any input on this because the local government controls the road, which crosses the park at several locations.

I think the national parks should set strict national standards on what is allowed (no flyovers, no mechanized uses on trails, etc...) then allow individual parks to make regulations stricter, much as the states can in other matters. Individual parks should not be able to relax restrictions, because there is too much local political pressure to do so (IMBA, ATVers, etc), and it dilutes the protection of the parks.

The national park system has not done a very good job of protecting the lands that they control. If we take local political pressure out of it, they would do a much better job - most of the park employees are very dedicated to protecting our parks, but they are not able to do so.

These parks belong to all of us, and should be treated like the national treasures that they were intended to be - places of solitude, reflection, and protection.

National standards should be applied, with some discretionary capabilities left to each park's management team. And while input from local (and perhaps state) authorities can play a role, the final decision should be solely in the hands of the Park Service. In addition to air and noise pollution, keep politics and the politicians out. Conversely, the Park Service should have a part in decisions concerning land usage that is adjacent to the parks.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island National Monument probably see the most helicopter air tour traffic of any NPS unit, as well as a continuous series of arrivals to Newark airport, departures from JFK airport, air shuttles, and Coast Guard flights from nearby Floyd Bennett Field airport (itself also an NPS site).

The only access to Lake Clark, Katmai, for most climbers on Denali, and to many other National Parks in Alaska is by air.

Is it helpful to try to force-fit a single uniform national policy onto such diverse sites?

Perhaps your next Reader Participation Survey might be: in light of the issues in Yellowstone, should motorized winter travel be banned from all NPS units? Including the Blue Ridge and Washington-Baltimore Parkways?

Hey Kurt, I think you've mischaracterized Senator Wyden's and Senator Merkley's amendment to the Senate FAA Reauthorization bill. The amendment has two parts. The first part will break up the bureaucratic stalemate that has kept the NPS and FAA from completing a single air tour management plan under the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000. (The law does not apply to Alaska or the Grand Canyon, which has its own over flights law). The language essentially says that the NPS can't tell the FAA how to ensure airspace safety and the FAA can't tell the NPS how to regulate parks (which is what the 1916 NPS Organic Act mandates). This will help make progress for the 90 or so parks across the country that need air tour management plans because they have air tours.

The second part of the amendment allows for the NPS to simply make a determination up front as to whether allowing new air tours to take place at Crater Lake NP is appropriate. Without this provision, the FAA and NPS must go through the process of completing a air tour management plan, which includes an environmental review, even when allowing for air tours at the park is clearly unnecessary and inappropriate. A earlier version of the amendment would have dealt with this loophole more broadly and applied to parks, like Gettysburg, where there are currently no air tours taking place. Even though the earlier version would have cut a great deal of red tape (do we really need to do an environmental review to know that air tours our simply inappropriate at Gettysburg?), there was pushback and the provision was limited to Crater Lake NP. So the Senators did try to fix a loophole that exists across the system.

Finally, my experience has been that many within the FAA believe their clients are air tour operators and NOT the American public, which has kept real progress from occurring at Grand Canyon and other parks across the country. If the two agencies get out of each other’s way, air tours will be safer and park visitors can finally have a better opportunity to enjoy the sounds of nature. Until this happens and the agencies get their act together, we will likely see continued involvement by Congress.

Bryan,

You're right that bureaucratic fighting between the FAA and NPS over who has jurisdiction over the airspace over national parks has created an incredible logjam.

But it also seems that Sens. Wyden and Merkley are looking out for Crater Lake first and foremost by 1) putting Director Jarvis on the spot during his confirmation hearing to endorse a ban on air tours over Crater Lake, and 2) writing their amendment so the NPS could ban air tours in Crater Lake without first developing an air tour management plan.

Perhaps the better solution would have been to have the second portion of their amendment apply to the entire National Park System, no?

Kurt, it should come as no surpise that the OR Senators would be most concerned with Crater Lake NP, which is on the OR quarter. However, as I mentioned, the jursidiction language in the first part of the amendment does apply to the entire NPS system that is regulated under the NP Air Tour Management Act of 2000. (The law excludes Grand Canyon NP and Alaska.) This language is a big deal. Also, again, the second part of the amendment was initially written to apply to the entire NPS System (excluding GRCA and AK) but they were forced to limit it to Crater Lake NP in order to have it accepted. While weakend, this amendment will still break the logjam that has stalled air tour plans from being completed at parks across the country and allow the NPS to preserve natural quiet at Crater Lake NP. Senators Wyden and Merkley should be commended for their efforts.

I believe Rocky Mountain is exempted, to, in the original language of the air tour management act....

As for the Oregon senators, sadly they would be most concerned about Crater Lake. Just as the Wyoming senators are most concerned about Yellowstone and Grand Teton, the North Dakota senators most concerned about Theodore Roosevelt, the Florida senators most concerned about Everglades, Biscayne, etc.

And that's why there seems to be an inherent political impediment to how best to manage the national parks. Are they being managed as "national" parks, or "state" parks? Are they being managed in the best interests of their natural, cultural and historical resources, or to appease political factions? When it comes to air tours, at least, I think a pretty good argument can be made for the latter.

If NPS leaders are as serious about reducing noise in Parks as it appears, they must acknowledge that the loudest sources TRULY are motorcycles and park maintenance crews who seem insensitive to QUIET VALUES.

Living at CRLA, I never got used to them. MOTORCYCLES are much more common and disruptive – even in the more remote portions of the Park – where their ear-destructive noisy roar was heard. Park maintenance crews idle diesel engines endlessly without purpose wasting fuel and polluting once cleaner air. Tour buses are also guilty and rangers should order all buses to stop/turn off their noisy diesel engines.

R. Mastrogiuseppe,

I don't know about CRLA, but all of the parks I've worked at do have a rule that tour busses have to turn off their engines when idling for more than 15minutes. I agree with you about the motorcycles. There have been many times hiking in Capitol Reef or Zion (before the shuttles run) and along comes a big group of Harley's. That engine noise bouncing off canyon walls is horrible and I'm sure way above safety regulations. I know that rangers who work in entrance stations have the same issues. The sound of the engines bouncing off that concrete is very dangerous for them (when you visit a park, please turn off your engines at the entrance booth for the sake of ranger ears!) There have also been many times I've had to completely stop an interpretive program and wait for a bus, big deisel truck or motorcycles to go by. Totally ruins the experience.

Bryan, just FYI, Gettysburg Regional Airport is only 1 mile west of the Park. (I landed there, we pulled our bicycles out of the back of our plane, and rode throughout the Park. Isn't that air touring, even though non-commercial? And yeah, I took a couple descending circles over the Park on final approach, to scout out the route we'd be biking. Should this be banned? Did the same thing at dozens of NPs from ME to AK, OR to FL to USVI.)

And Bryan, may I suggest you are likely to hear ~100 times more motorcycle noise in Gettysburg NP than airplane noise. Should we mandate each NP develop a Motorcycle Management Plan? That's not practical: each state regulates motor vehicles and roads, and the FAA regulates air travel and airports, not the NPS.

Kurt writes "the Oregon senators, sadly they would be most concerned about Crater Lake. Just as the Wyoming senators are most concerned about Yellowstone and Grand Teton..."
and I read "The Oregon senators naturally are most knowledgeable about Crater Lake, the Wyoming senators are most knowledgable about Yellowstone and Grand Teton..."