Deadline nears for HVNP’s air tours plan

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A Blue Hawaiian helicopter takes off last week from Hilo International Airport. Eleven of 24 U.S. national parks have completed drafts of court-ordered air tour management plans and released them for public comment, but that list doesn't include Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A passenger walks toward a Paradise helicopter before it takes off from Hilo International Airport on Sept. 15.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A Blue Hawaiian helicopter flies in the clouds after taking off from Hilo International Airport on Sept. 15.

Eleven of 24 U.S. national parks have completed drafts of court-ordered air tour management plans and released them for public comment.

That’s 21 years after the Air Tour Management Act of 2000 went into effect and a year after a federal judge ruled in favor of a suit by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono, or HICoP, which petitioned the court to compel the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service to enforce the law.

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The act requires vendors conducting commercial air tours over national parks and certain tribal lands to first obtain a permit from the FAA. It also mandated that the FAA and NPS establish an air tour management plan (ATMP) that may prohibit or place conditions on air tours.

Still to file draft ATMPs are Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island and Haleakala National Park on Maui. Those two parks reported the most and fifth-most air tour flights, respectively, in 2019, with 9,276 flights above HVNP and 4,875 over Haleakala.

“In a nutshell, the NPS and FAA are working on ATMPs for 24 parks simultaneously, which includes Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. NPS and FAA are releasing ATMP-related documents for public comment through this fall/winter. The park will notify the public/media when we have something ready for public review,” HVNP spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane said in an email last week.

“Currently, Hawaii Volcanoes is working with FAA and other staff within the NPS to review information from the previous environmental assessment and environmental impact statement efforts. We are incorporating data and information that has been collected since 2012 in order to develop the alternatives.”

The deadline established by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for completion of the air tour management plans was two years, which would be the end of August 2022, Ferracane said.

Bob Ernst, a founding board member of HICoP, said the draft ATMPs already released “are all rubber-stamping the existing number of overflights … and they’re rubber-stamping routes.”

“In some of them, I think, there are up to 14 different routes over these parks, and it’s all in designated wilderness,” Ernst said. “The wilderness areas in these parks cannot be protected if overflights continue.

“National parks aren’t playgrounds. They’re not moneymaking venues for private enterprise — especially the designated wilderness areas.”

“We are not asking the FAA to stop all air tours in Hawaii. But we’re asking them to operate so they don’t impact the national park or the people of Hawaii Island,” he added. “Some of the most beautiful views of Hawaii Island are along the coast. These operators … can develop air tours that operate offshore with the view of the island. They can continue doing business without alienating the communities and doing harm to the communities they do business in.”

Ernst predicted HVNP will be the last to issue a draft ATMP, adding “waiting until then to comment” will be of little use because a business-as-usual precedent already will be set for commercial air tours.

“The Air Tour Management Plan rule that Congress created in 2000 provides for no overflights, a no-fly zone. And that’s what we are advocating for,” he said.

Ernst said the FAA and NPS are acting at this point “under duress … because there’s a court order” and added Congress should have ensured the act was enforced. He did praise U.S. Rep. Ed Case, a Hawaii Democrat, who wrote an Aug. 31 letter to Kevin Welsh, executive director of the FAA’s Office of Environment and Energy.

In the letter, Case said that during the two-decades-plus the law has been on the books, “the untenable impacts of commercial air tour operations have worsened materially.”

“This comes just as our natural habitats are increasingly threatened from human and environmental factors and the public need for the peace and refuge and natural experience of our national parks has become even more critical,” Case wrote. “… Our national parks were never intended and are not today intended for profit extraction at the expense of preservation of the natural habitat and visitor experience.”

Cal Dorn, a helicopter pilot and CEO of Paradise Helicopters, described the situation as “complex,” “problematic” and “kind of blown out of proportion.”

“The idea that the national park shouldn’t have any overflights is one side of the spectrum. And the other side of the spectrum is unlimited flights.” he said. “They established that in the (Air Tour Management Act), but they just couldn’t come to any agreement between the FAA and the National Parks Service — so that’s why we’re here 18 years later or whatever it is.

“If we cease flying in the national parks … there’s a lot of people who are not going to see them. Right now, not everybody can access them. You can access the parks from the air. You don’t need trails, bathrooms or bring in invasive species or anything else.

“I think there needs to be a balance. I’m not sure we’re getting that from what I’ve been hearing about the latest ATMP meetings.”

Dorn opined HVNP is different from the other parks filing plans under the court order.

“People who come to Hawaii Island when the eruptions are going on, they want to see lava. They’re not looking for the park,” he said, and added he doesn’t “think the park has been forthcoming with the businesses.”

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“We built our business around a lot of things, one of them the lava outside the park. So, when the lava’s outside the park, this ATMP doesn’t apply to anything …, ” Dorn said. “If you think about it in terms of something different, like if you allowed me to open a store up, and you said that I could sell only 1,000 of certain items, and I make a business out of that — and then, you pull it back later and tell me I can only sell 500 of something — is that going to be good for that business?”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.