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Lawmakers debate air tours in popular national parks

A helicopter sits idly on a tarmac in the Southwest.
William Warby
Flickr Creative Commons

News brief: 

Federal officials are debating how to balance the economics of scenic air tours with the serenity of popular national parks. A committee in the U.S. House of Representatives discussed commercial management plans in areas like Mt. Rushmore and Glacier National Park in a recent hearing.

In the past few years, the Federal Aviation Administration and National Park Service have been passing plans to regulate air tours in several well-known areas, and they’re proposing more in Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. The goal is usually to mitigate noise and other impacts from tours by limiting how often and where aircraft can fly.

But air tour operators say their businesses are being harmed unnecessarily because there are too many cumbersome rules to follow. Jake Tomlin, president of Grand Canyon Scenic Airlines based in Nevada, said he’s opposed to the federal regulation process as it’s currently constructed.

“The overall strategy is to cut back flights to such a degree that it is no longer economically feasible for air tour companies like mine to stay in business around those parks,” he said during testimony.

Tomlin added that he thinks air tour companies provide a lot of good to tourist destinations – including jobs in gateway communities, life flights in emergency situations and a better way for those with disabilities to access scenic beauty.

On the other side, many communities, including Tribal nations, have expressed concerns about safety, privacy and environmental harm due to helicopters whirring above their neighborhoods and sacred places. Carl Slater, a delegate of the Navajo Nation Council, said Indigenous peoples need to be consulted more when agencies are putting together these plans.

“While air tours provide visitors with the exciting opportunity to see our national parks and monuments from a new perspective, these opportunities are not without risks, and those risks fall disproportionately on Native peoples,” he said.

Slater also said that profits, jobs and other benefits from commercial air tours should benefit nearby Indigenous communities.

Many of the changes to air tour management in parks are coming in response to a federal court order in 2020, which required federal officials to create or update plans in 23 national parks.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.

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