Should visitors to Washington’s national parks hear only hooting owls and bugling elk, or are the sounds of low-flying aircraft also part of the experience?
Administrators at Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks, along with the Federal Aviation Administration, are formulating policies to determine the future of commercial sightseeing flights over the two parks.
A consortium of 28 state environmental groups have made clear the number of air tours they’d like to see over the two parks: zero. They believe the sound and sight of low-flying aircraft is incompatible with the natural experiences parks have to offer.
“Those rain forests can be so quiet,” said Rob Smith, a Seattle-based director with the National Parks Conservation Association, a non-governmental advocacy organization. “A little bit of aircraft noise goes a long way.”
Olympic and Mount Rainier, along with Everglades and Death Valley, are the first of 23 U.S. national parks tasked by a federal court with developing air-tour management plans individually tailored to each park.
Temporary policies are in place at some parks. The new policies would govern only commercial sightseeing flights and not private recreational flights, commercial airlines or military flights.
The public comment and meeting phases for the Rainier and Olympic plans have closed. Now, it’s up to NPS and FAA officials to decide what those air tour plans will look like.
The management plans might limit the number of flights to a time period or prohibit them entirely. The plans can also regulate altitudes and routes flown and mitigate noise, visual or other impacts.
Both Washington parks (the state’s other national park, North Cascades, is not under review) have a relatively low number of flights. Mount Rainier sees an average of only one commercial sightseeing flight a year while Olympic has an average of 64, according to park officials.
Compare that with Grand Canyon National Park which sees some 50,000 flights a year and has a long, controversial and tragic history with them. The number of flights and accidents there eventually resulted in a plan specifically for the canyon.
So, why bother with Rainier and Olympic?
The two parks were swept up in the aftermath of nearly 20 years of infighting between the FAA and NPS after they were mandated by Congress in 2000 to come up with air-tour policies.
In 2020, after being sued by two environmental groups, a federal court ruled that the NPS and FAA had engaged in “underwhelming — and ultimately unsuccessful — efforts” to regulate air tours over national parks. The court ruled that the two bickering agencies must come up with an air-tour management plan for 23 specific parks without delay.
Two of those were Rainier and Olympic.
Mount Rainier National Park
Current policy at Mount Rainier regulates air tours in a zone that extends a half mile beyond park boundaries and keeps aircraft no lower than 5,000 feet above ground level.
That essentially leaves a narrow ring around the mountain because typical sightseeing fixed-wing planes and helicopters can’t fly to the 19,400 feet altitude level needed to pass over the 14,411-foot peak.
It’s a relatively small airspace over the 236,000-acre park, but it’s an important one, Smith said.
“It’s something the park can actually control for the purposes of naturalness, of wilderness, natural sounds and quiet,” he said.
There’s no lack of opportunities to see the volcano from the air, Smith said.
“You can get a great view of Mount Rainier and not fly over the park,” he said. “Alaska Airlines does it every day.”
The groups in the consortium opposed to the flights say a zero-flights policy was not being considered by the NPS. The proposed plan calls for at least one flight per year.
“Well, why don’t you take the next step and say, ‘What if there were none?’” Smith said.
Teri Tucker, planning and compliance lead at Mount Rainier National Park, said a no-flight option is still on the table, even though the draft management plan listed a minimum of one flight. That was based on the historical average of one flight, she said.
The public comment period closed Aug. 28.
“One of the things that we heard from many folks was that they would like to see the park consider an option for no air tours,” she said.
Currently, two air tour operators, Rite Bros Aviation in Port Angeles and Classic Helicopter of Auburn, have a voluntary agreement with the park to conduct no more than 34 flights annually. Only Rite Bros has conducted the rare tour and Classic hasn’t reported any flights over the park since 2013.
The FAA plays the lead role in determining the final plan, Tucker said, but it’s the NPS that has its hiking boots on the ground and is looking at the impact to visitors and the environment. Some impacts aren’t so obvious.
“There are the things that are less tangible ... natural sounds or being able to have a particular kind of experience in the wilderness,” Tucker said. “97 percent of Mount Rainier is designated wilderness, we certainly are considering that as we develop the air tour management plan.”
Olympic National Park
While the order to formulate air-tour management plans came from the highest levels of government, the response is coming from the hollows and moss covered forests of Olympic National Park.
It’s there that the quietest spot in America can be found. There’s no official governing body that makes such declarations, but that’s what One Square Inch of Silence founder Gordon Hempton has called a spot in the Hoh Rain Forest.
“I don’t want to hear any noise,” said Christina Miller, the park’s planning and compliance program manager. “I don’t care if it’s airplanes or cars or someone in the wilderness with their ukulele. I want to hear the natural sounds.”
The park’s new air-tour plan won’t be up to Miller. It will come, like Rainier’s, after public comments have been read, environmental and other impact studies are concluded and a hierarchy of NPS managers have signed off on it. And all of it needs approval by the FAA.
With the Olympic Mountains’ lower elevation (Mount Olympus stands at 7,980 feet) along with its 73 miles of stunning coastline, scenic flights have more of an opportunity to fly above the park’s 922,000 acres compared with Rainier.
Scenic flights have been in operation for decades at Olympic, Miller said.
Many of those flights are provided by Rite Bros. The company holds an agreement with the park to conduct up to 76 flights annually.
Jeff Well, Rite Bros’ owner, said he’s about to use up that entire allotment for this year. A no-flight policy at Olympic would hurt his business.
“I don’t know where they came up with that (76 flights) number in the first place,” Well said.
Well has hiked extensively in the park and knows what solitude sounds like.
“I try to be as quick and unobtrusive as possible,” he said.
He flies his Cessna aircraft no lower than 2,000 feet above the ground and usually well above 3,000 feet, he said. A mountain’s majesty can’t be appreciated if you’re too close to them, he said.
“It’s the entirety of the landscape,” Well said. “With the ocean in the background, and the sky and the clouds and everything.”
Recent air noise complaints at Olympic haven’t come from commercial flights, Miller said.
“Our bigger issue here has been the military overflights and increased training and the (U.S. Navy) Growlers that are louder,” Miller said. “We haven’t had complaints about our air tours.”
An air-tour management plan that permits no tours at all is a possibility at Olympic, Miller said.
The clock is ticking. In May 2020, the court gave the FAA and NPS two years to bring the 23 parks into compliance with the original Congressional act from 2000.
For Smith and other Washington conservation allies, Rainier and Olympic national parks should offer a respite from the sounds of the non-natural world.
“That’s where you can really hear nature, hear the wildlife, hear the streams, hear the wind in the trees,” he said. “We shouldn’t have the same big city noises follow us into the wilderness.”