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The Planet


When Congress designated Hawaii National Park in 1916, it protected what was known as the quietest place on Earth -- nearly 400 square miles of volcanoes, rivers, forests and wildlife. Unfortunately, it left out one key element: the air above the park.

It wasn't an oversight. At the time, the air remained the dominion of the birds. Sikorsky had not yet invented his helicopter, and "flightseeing" was still decades away. Today, visitors to Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes national parks -- the two units were carved out of the original Hawaii National Park in 1960 -- could be excused if they think they hear "Ride of the Valkyries" reverberating through the canyons. For as much as 45 minutes out of any given hour, waves of helicopters attack the islands' most popular sights in a deafening display of air-power superiority. On board are tourists drawn by the promise of seeing Hawaii up close, their camcorders held steady on shoulders like pint-sized bazookas.

The constant thrum of helicopter rotors, at altitudes as low as 20 feet, has introduced an unwanted element to the national park experience and placed an ominous cloud over the future of Hawaii's legendary quiet places.

"It doesn't do any good to protect all this wilderness if you don't protect the air space overhead," says Barry Stokes, president of a local group, Citizens Against Noise, and a longtime Sierra Club member who lives in Volcano, Hawaii. With more than half of all helicopter tour operators, Hawaii has borne the brunt of this new travel technology.

But the same problem is cropping up in national parks on the mainland. Noise complaints and a 1986 plane crash in Grand Canyon National Park resulted in passage of the National Overflights Act of 1987. The legislation placed restrictions on overflights of Yosemite and Haleakala national parks and established "flight-free" zones in the Grand Canyon, including a ban on flights below the canyon rim.

At the same time, Congress commissioned a study of the impact of air traffic over national parks. The Park Service first delayed the study, then withheld it. It was finally made public in September -- two weeks after environmental and community groups sued to force its release. For the majority of park units nationwide, the study confirms what many park visitors have known for years: Aircraft noise is the No. 1 problem faced by park resource managers.

The battle for quiet has placed some environmentalists in the awkward position of opposing what was once heralded as the environmentally preferable alternative to on-the-ground tourism. Helicopter operators argue that every passenger they take up -- 400,000 in Hawaii last year alone -- is one less camper or hiker making an impact on the ground.

Stokes, however, counters that air tours actually impose a heavy burden on park resources. Noise pollution from the air leaves a bigger "footprint" than individual hikers, said Stokes, ruining the national park experience for anyone within earshot.

Humans are not the only ones bothered by the swarms of helicopters and small airplanes. Birds are probably most affected by the noise, say wildlife biologists, because repeated disruptions of feeding, nesting and resting can lead to higher mortality rates or abandonment of habitat.

Airborne Free-For-All

The rapid ascent of air tourism over national parks is an interesting case study in what can happen when an industry goes completely unregulated. The air tour companies operate outside the jurisdiction of the Park Service, both because they are based outside of parks and because the Park Service's right to regulate air space over parks is disputed.

Moreover, helicopters are exempt from many of the Federal Aviation Administration regulations governing aircraft, leaving them free to shadow cliff faces, skirt treetops and "thread the needle" through narrow canyons in a dangerous game of close-up.

Private-property owners have banded together in recent years under the rubric of the Wise Use movement to oppose environmental regulations that they claim adversely affect the value of their land. In Hawaii, however, the free-for-all atmosphere over the islands' national parks has united property owners and environmentalists in an unusual partnership opposed to noise pollution.

Homeowners adjacent to Hawaii's parks have discovered that the free market in the air has put their homes directly under the flight paths of thousands of low-altitude flights monthly.

Silence is not the only casualty. Dozens of accidents have brought the death toll from air tours in Hawaii to 39 since 1989. The carnage prompted the FAA in September to release new regulations governing flights over Hawaii.

Aimed principally at improving helicopter safety records, the new regulations impose a 1,500-foot minimum operating altitude above parks and other noise-sensitive areas such as residential neighborhoods, historic sites and wildlife preserves. Environmentalists have called for a two-mile standoff zone.

Opponents of air tours have found support in Congress. Last year, Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) introduced legislation that would transfer authority for air space over national parks from the FAA to the Park Service. Hawaii's congressional delegation also introduced legislation, including a bill by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) that would restrict commercial and military aircraft in parks nationwide.

The Clinton administration has also taken notice. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Frederico Pena have been studying options to limit air tours over national parks, including regulating the hours, weather conditions and altitude at which air tours can be flown.

In a state where three out of five jobs are tied to tourism, Hawaii's helicopter operators have thus far been able to fend off new regulations by arguing their livelihoods depend on unfettered access to the air. They contend that regulating air tours would cripple the industry and put hundreds of people out of work.

Since restrictions went into effect at Grand Canyon National Park in 1987, however, the local air tour industry has experienced "unlimited growth," according to the FAA and the Park Service. That fact would seem to underscore environmentalists' argument that the air tours are more of a carnival ride whose survival is not dependent on the national parks as a backdrop.

"It's for thrill-seekers who would be just as happy navigating the canyons of Manhattan as the volcanoes of Hawaii," said David Leese, editor of the Sierra Club's Maui Group newsletter. "Helicopter joy rides in this paradise will eventually become less attractive as tourists learn of the environmental havoc they wreak."

    For more information: Contact David Leese at (808) 572-5198.

To take action: Because comments received during an earlier comment period tilted overwhelmingly in favor of the air-tourism industry, it is crucial the FAA hear from concerned citizens immediately. Tell the agency that the proposed 1,500-foot minimum altitude should be raised to two miles.Write: FAA Office of the Chief Counsel, Attn.: Rules Docket (AGC200), Docket No. 27919; 800 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20591.

SOURCE: Neil Hamilton, The Planet, Dec/Jan 95
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