For National Parks, Helicopter Tours Are a Noisy Problem

At Glacier and other national parks, tourist flights are drowning out the silence that some hikers look for. A 17-year-old law could change that—if it weren’t trapped in a bureaucratic spat.

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At the end of the six-mile hike to Gunsight Lake, I could hear my heartbeat. After all, its only competition was the soft lapping of waves on the shoreline in front of me and the hiss of the breeze through the trees.

My friends and I weren’t totally alone here: A half-dozen other backpackers had made the trek from the road that bisects Glacier National Park. Occasionally, a couple of ambitious day hikers would pop up from the treeline, take a look around, and head back the way they came. But for a park that saw more than 2.3 million visitors in 2015, it felt quiet.

Unlike most national parks, more than 95 percent of Glacier is classified as wilderness, legally protecting it from machines, most buildings, pavement, and all but the most primitive human innovations. But as we quickly discovered, that didn’t apply to the air above us.

All of a sudden, a sharp clattering broke through the silence. It faded out, and for a moment, everything was still again. Then, the sound of another helicopter. Then another. Then another.

The racket was typical for Glacier’s high season. From April to September of 2015, Glacier National Park hosted almost 650 tourist overflights; That’s an average of between three and four every day. But on clear, sunny days, like the one on which we visited, the number balloons.

“The whole reason people go to Glacier or any other National Park, especially wilderness ones, is to get away from that anthropogenic noise,” says Mary McClelland, a local activist and founder of the Quiet! Glacier Coalition.

According to McClelland, helicopter noise is a burden on 99.75 percent of Glacier’s annual visitors; only a tiny percentage see the park from the air. “Not only are they contributing to the demise of the glaciers they go to tour, but they’re also contributing to a negative experience for the rest of the visitors,” she said.

As if that’s not enough, the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division cites numerous studies that have proven aircraft noise also negatively impacts wildlife, especially birds and large mammals.

McClelland isn’t alone in her opposition. Beginning in the 1980s, Montana legislators began working to end overflights and in a 1994 report to Congress, the National Park Service listed Glacier as one of the higher priority parks for noise relief, based its impacts. In 1999, the park released its official management plan which labeled overflights as a critical issue and expressed support for a total ban.

In 2000, Congress passed the National Parks Air Tour Management Act, which required the FAA and NPS to create a detailed plan for each park with more than 50 overflights per year; the agencies would have the authority to incentivize quieter technology, limit flights, or even ban them altogether.

However, the FAA, as the sole authority over civilian air travel in the United States, is the lead agency under the law. Since the act doesn’t specify a deadline, the agency hasn’t created a single plan in the 16 years since its passage—leaving tour operators to conduct up to as many flights as they did the year before the law was passed.

Who’s in charge?

The major sticking point, according to both agencies, stems from the law’s requirement that each ATMP include a thorough environmental analysis: a scientific, metric-driven look at how much noise these aircraft give off in each location, and how much of it is a bad thing.

According to Vicki Ward, the National Park Service’s Overflights Program Manager, the FAA generally begins to consider aircraft noise problematic at 65 decibels—about the same volume as an animated conversation

The problem is that 65 decibel number was created for situations like determining whether the area around an airport is habitable, not preserving natural quiet in a backcountry area.

Most backcountry locations sit at closer to between 30 and 40 decibels which, because the decibel system is logarithmic, amounts to far less than the FAA’s standard. According to Ward, 35 decibels is akin to a quiet library. At 25, which exists in some parks, visitors can hear the blood rushing through their ears.

“We’re trying to protect these very, very quiet places and to use a metric that was developed to determine impacts in an urban area just doesn’t make sense,” said Ward.

In 2015, the FAA acknowledged in an order that that it was not appropriate to apply that level to locations like National Parks, but it did not set a new standard.

Ward believes the FAA’s reluctance to sign off on a smaller number stems from the fear that it would create a precedent that could be applied to their more traditional uses.

Commenting on a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office addressing the lack of progress in the six years since the law’s passage, a Department of the Interior representative leveled the blame on the agencies’ differing opinions of their roles, saying more would have been done if each agency had followed Congressional intent and allowed the Park Service to determine the significance of impacts on the environment in parks.

Ward echoes this sentiment, noting that an early discussion of the Air Tour Management Act, it specified that it was the Park Service’s job to decide how flights impacted park resources, while the FAA was there to make sure the skies remained safe. But as the lead agency, the FAA interpreted the law as giving them the final say, even in environmental matters.

Signs of progress.

In 2012, after a dozen years with no progress, Congress passed an amendment to allow voluntary agreements between the FAA, NPS and tour operators to take the place of a full Management Plan. These agreements, though they do require the consent of operators, don’t require the stringent, tricky environmental assessments or even the approval of the FAA. With the threat of setting a precedent out of the way, the agency has proven more willing to allow the Park Service to make the environmental determinations.

Two parks, Big Cypress National Preserve and Biscayne National Park, have already enacted agreements. According to Sierra Club National Parks Committee member Dick Hingson, those are hardly groundbreaking, as neither is a true wilderness area. Biscayne also lies below the threshold of 50 flights, meaning it’s not required to have a plan in place at all.

But for Ward, who facilitated the creation of both these plans, they’re a start. “Now that we’ve got a few under the belt, we think the next few should go faster,” she said.

The situation in Glacier is tougher, due to the amount of wilderness, the number of operators, and the availability of park staff to participate in the process. (While Ward is responsible for the program at the service level, it’s the individual parks themselves to approve agreements.)

Whether a voluntary agreement is even possible in Glacier remains to be seen. Because operator approval is a part of the process, Glacier’s determination to disallow all overflights could be a non-starter. A stalled negotiation would send it back to the default ATMP process, and again require a reticent FAA’s approval.

McClelland isn’t sure what it’s going to take to more tightly regulate flights at Glacier. The only park in the U.S. that has completely banned scenic flights, Rocky Mountain National Park, did so with an eleventh-hour addition to the National Parks Air Tour Management Act. It might take a similarly bold, independent act of Congress—or the President—to do the same for Glacier.

Until then, at least at Glacier National Park, true silence may be hard to find.