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Lawmakers Target Rules for Air Tours in National Parks

A House subcommittee accused the National Park Service during a hearing this week of abusing its authority in a way that “essentially eliminates” commercial air tours over parkland. 

In his opening statement, Rep. Paul Gosar, chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, argued that the agency has been using the National Parks Air Tour Management Program (ATMP) Act to limit aerial tours over certain national park areas without first consulting stakeholders. 

The 2000 law requires commercial air tour operators to apply for permits from the Federal Aviation Administration. It also requires the Parks Service and FAA to establish an advisory group consisting of experts outside the federal government. 

However, the Republican-led committee said that the agencies failed to comply with a 2020 court order telling them to create the advisory group ahead of implementing ATMPs or develop voluntary agreements in 23 national park areas. 

What spurred the hearing in the ongoing debate was the recent implementation of ATMPs in the Badlands National Park and the Mount Rushmore Memorial as well as plans to regulate operations in Gosar’s home state of Arizona. 

The congressman said the new regulations “will undoubtedly put air tour operators in these regions out of business.” He added that the local communities would lose millions of dollars in economic activity and individuals with limited mobility would lose opportunities to access those areas. 

In response to questions, Ray Sauvajot, the associate director of the Natural Resource Stewardship and Science for the Parks Service, explained the agency’s concern when identifying when and where an air tour can occur is protecting “natural and cultural resources, visitor experiences, and the concerns of tribal communities.”

Sauvajot described noise as a significant concern among national park visitors as well as potentially harmful to certain wildlife and natural landscapes. “Those are exactly the types of things that we try to analyze in our efforts to identify where and how air tours may be appropriate,” he said, adding that only a small number of agreements have resulted in no flying. 

Moving forward, Republican congressmen said they want to see the Senate pass legislation, which they have already advanced, to require the Parks Service and the FAA to consult an advisory group and to prohibit funds to the Parks Service that would go toward limiting air tours in national parks. 

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