Helicopter Tours Are Unwelcome Visitors At This Popular—and Sacred—Washington Waterfall

An increase in unregulated and low-altitude flights has pushed the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe to ask the Department of the Interior and FAA for an official flight restriction at Snoqualmie Falls.

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Snoqualmie Falls, a 268-foot cascade just 30 miles from Seattle, is spectacular. For the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, it is also sacred: the falls are central to their creation story and the site of important religious ceremonies. It’s a major tourist draw, seeing over 2 million visitors every year, making it one of Washington state’s most popular natural attractions. Since spring of last year, however, there has been a marked increase in visitors of a different kind: helicopter tours of the falls, both unauthorized and at low altitudes that the tribe says verge on—or simply are—dangerous. 

The falls, which, along with the surrounding land, are owned and managed by the tribe, and are listed on the National Register of Traditional Cultural Properties to boot. Unfortunately for the Snoqualmie, that doesn’t come with airspace protection. 

These private aviation companies are capitalizing our sacred site and violating our rights as Snoqualmie people to practice our cultural beliefs at the Falls in peace,” said Tribal Chairman Robert de los Angeles in a news release on December 1. “It is our obligation, as Snoqualmie people, to do everything we can to protect our sacred site from continued harm.” 

When the tours became more frequent and disruptive, the tribe says, it reached out to the tour companies that were the most frequent offenders, but says they ignored its concerns and continued to operate as they had been. Now, the Snoqualmie Tribe has taken the issue to the next level, reaching out to the Department of the Interior, Washington State Department of Transportation, and the Federal Aviation Authority and asking them to put an end to unregulated and low-altitude flights above the falls. If the federal government grants its request, the airspace above the falls will be much more restricted, like the airspace above national monuments. The tribe has also asked the public to submit individual complaints to the FAA, about either the infringement on a sacred site, the danger the unregulated tours present to residents and visitors, or both. 

“We need a solution that will protect the airspace above Snoqualmie Falls,” said Tribal Councilmember Christopher Castleberry in the Snoqualmie Tribe’s news release. “We need immediate action in order to ensure that the 2 million plus individuals who visit our sacred site each year are kept safe.”