Could the screech of Mexican spotted owls in Zion National Park be replaced by the whump-whump-whump of helicopters?
National Park Service officials are expressing serious concerns over three different proposals by private companies to provide low-level aerial tours of the park. And the park service may be powerless to stop them, said park superintendent Don Falvey."We have been contacted by potential operators of scenic helicopter tours," Falvey said, "and we expressed our concerns about the potential impact on threatened and endangered species and on the solitude of the park. But it appears our only recourse is through the Federal Aviation Administration or through an act of Congress prohibiting it."
Currently, only Grand Canyon National Park has specific restrictions on aerial tours. Those restrictions were imposed by Congress.
Falvey said the National Park Service is opposing the aerial tours on two grounds: Helicopters could disrupt the nesting activities of peregrine falcons and Mexican spotted owls, both of which are listed as threatened or endangered species; and low-level flights could disrupt the natural quiet of the park. "Solitude is a quality experience we want to enhance," he said.
The park recently published a planning document identifying its "desired future" in which one stated goal of the park is to provide "a variety of opportunities to experience the backcountry where solitude is a primary concern."
In meeting that goal, the park is planning to limit the number of people in the backcountry. It already limits the size of backcountry groups to 12.
The impact of helicopter noise on the nesting habits of various birds has been a concern in the park for some time. The National Park Service is moving its own search-and-rescue heliport out of the main part of the canyon to the Coal Pits Wash area near the town of Rockville.
"That is already a disturbed area, and there would be no impact on visitor solitude or any animal species," Falvey said.
The possibility of commercial helicopter tours of the park has not been welcomed by local residents, either. When potential tour operators approached the town of Springdale about a heliport there, the town passed an ordinance prohibiting heliports. The towns of Rockville and Virgin have also rejected overtures to build heliports.
At least one tour operator is now looking at private lands just east of Zion National Park for a heliport. Another recently obtained a permit to operate out of the Kanab airport.
While the National Park Service manages lands within the park, the FAA manages the airspace above. The FAA has issued advisories that aircraft should remain at least 2,000 feet above national parks, but the advisory is just that - advice. There is no penalty for violations of the advisory.
In the case of commercial tours, the park would receive no financial benefit. Virtually all businesses operating inside the park must pay a percentage to the park, but because the park does not control the airspace above it, it would not receive that percentage. "We get only the negative impacts," Falvey said.
Falvey has been in contact with the FAA about imposing over-flight restrictions more stringent than the current advisory. "Part of the problem is there are no regulations to set minimum heights above the park," he said. "And the best way to address that problem and reach all pilots is through FAA regulations."