Image courtesy the National Park Service

Mt. Rainier seeks public input on air tour plan

Park Service wants to formalize flight standards around the mountain.

What should the rules look like for flight tours over Mt. Rainier? The Park Service wants to hear your opinion.

A proposal by park staff and federal aviation authorities would formalize rules on commercial sightseeing flights around the mountain. Advocates of those limitations say that commercial flights can disturb wildlife and disrupt the visitor experience when they fly too low or too frequently.

The National Park Service (NPS) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s draft Air Tour Management Plan would create new training standards, as well as limit commercial flights around the park to once-per-year on a pre-determined route during the late morning and early afternoon. The act would also limit how low pilots can fly and incentivize them to fly quieter aircraft.

Commercial flights over the park wouldn’t look much different under the plan, National Park Service Planning and Compliance Lead Teri Tucker said. Only one tour goes around the park per year on average, and pilots already follow the guidelines that the draft would make official, she said.

A public comment period on the proposal is now open through Aug. 28. You can visit https://parkplanning.nps.gov/MountRainierATMP to share comments or concerns. A virtual public meeting is scheduled for Aug. 16 from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., and will be live streamed at https://youtu.be/dVqpZ_X5vww.

A copy of the proposal is attached to this story online. Here’s the gist of what the agencies have in mind:

The draft Air Tour Management Plan would require all commercial air tour operators at the park to obtain permission from the FAA in areas within the park or up to half a mile outside of it, and at elevations up to 5,000 feet.

Only one tour per year would be allowed. Additionally, tour operators would:

• Have to follow a single pre-determined route.

• Be required to fly above 3,000 feet except during emergencies.

• Operate only from 10 a.m. through 3 p.m. (If they use “quiet technology aircraft,” they can instead operate from one hour after sunrise to one hour before sunset during certain times of the year.)

• Take at least one training course per year (if offered by Park Staff).

According to the Park Service, only two air tour operators currently have permission to run a combined total of 34 flights over the park each year. One of the companies, Classic Helicopter Corp., has not reported any flights since 2013, and the other, Rite Bros Aviation, Inc., conducts an average of only one per year, the NPS said.

That means the once-per-year limitation would simply maintain the current reported use levels, Tucker said. Additionally, the pre-determined flight path is the same path that pilots already use, Tucker said, and pilots already fly at or above 3,000 feet.

The limit is intended to “protect Park soundscapes, visitor experience, wilderness character and wildlife by limiting the number of potential disturbances caused by commercial air tours,” according to the proposal. Height and time limits on the flights protects birds like the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owls, which are sensitive to noise, and other wildlife which are highly active at dawn.

National Parks, including Rainier, are required to seek input on their air tour plans based on the now 20-year-old National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000, which required parks to set limits on their flight routes and hours to protect parks and their visitors.

In May last year, a federal judge ordered the NPS and FAA to complete their air tour plans for about two dozen parks within the next two years. The Mount Rainier National Park is one of them, and the goal is for each park to complete their air tour plans by the end of Aug. 2022. Other parks under that order include the Everglades National Park in Florida, Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota and the Olympic National Park in Washington.


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