Plans for air tours over Bay Area national parks violates federal law

Plans for air tours over Bay Area national parks violates federal law

A lawsuit filed by environmental groups alleges the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration violated federal law by approving a plan to regulate air tours over Marin County’s national parks without adequately studying environmental impacts.

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Marin Audubon Society and the Watershed Alliance of Marin groups are calling on the court to toss the park service’s air tour management plan adopted in January for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument and the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.

The groups are seeking a court order requiring an environmental analysis and limiting the number of flights over the parks to 50 per year until a new plan is adopted. The plan allows for about 2,600 trips annually.

“The ability of commercial tour operators to fly above national parks is not a right, it is a privilege — a privilege that must be subordinate to the values these parks were established to preserve,” said Jeff Ruch of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

FAA spokesperson Emma Duncan declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. The National Park Service deferred comment to the U.S. Department of Justice, which did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service were required under a law passed in 2000 to develop air tour management plans regulating noise and other impacts from airplane and helicopter tours at national parks. The plans were only required for parks that have more than 50 commercial tourist flights each year.

The legislation was largely a response to noise impact concerns of air tours over national parks such as the Grand Canyon and national parks in Hawaii, where several air tour companies seek to meet the demands of tens of thousands of tourists every year.

The Bay Area has two companies allowed to fly over its national parks: San Francisco Helicopters and Seaplane Adventures of Mill Valley. Seaplane Adventures is the only operating air tour company flying over the parks.

Under the plan adopted in January, the two companies are allowed to fly a combined total of about 2,600 trips over the four Bay Area parks.

Under the previous interim plan, the two companies were allowed to make a total of about 5,900 trips per year, which the park service said greatly exceeded the number of air tours that actually occurred. The new trip limit was based on a three-year average of trips from 2017-2019.

Signage alerts visitors of the quiet zone in Cathedral Grove at Muir Woods National Monument on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
Signage alerts visitors of the quiet zone in Cathedral Grove at Muir Woods National Monument on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal) 

Only 143 airplane tours are allowed to fly over Point Reyes each year. Helicopter tours would be barred from flying over Point Reyes and all air tours would be prohibited over Muir Woods National Monument.

The plan also set new restrictions on altitudes, flight times, routes and distance from sensitive wildlife areas.

The lawsuit asks the federal court to slash the total number of flights to 50 per year until environmental studies have occurred and a new plan is adopted.

The environmental organizations allege that the park did not conduct a full environmental review or noise surveys when developing the plan. The groups also criticized the plan for setting a buffer distance of 2,000 feet away from cattle ranches in Point Reyes National Seashore compared to 1,000 feet from nesting seabird colonies, peregrine falcon nests and marine mammal haul-out areas.

Elephant seals rest on the sand at Drakes Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
Elephant seals rest on the sand at Drakes Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal) 

“We have an incredible diversity of wildlife from all the marine mammals and birds that roost, nest and pup along the coast,” said Barbara Salzman, executive director of Marin Audubon. “They really didn’t do an environmental review so we want them to do an adequate environmental analysis of the impacts. All they did was basically accept what’s been going on.”