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Letter for Thursday, March 31, 2022

Commercial tour aircrafts don’t belong in our national parks

Growing up in Hilo, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park was our playground, from family hiking, picnicking, camping and visiting Pele, to the beginnings of an understanding of our natural and cultural worlds.

Later, with Haleakala National Park on Maui, Hawai‘i’s volcanoes formed the foundation of appreciation of the fragility of nature under threat, of the ‘aina as a living, breathing, spiritual being, of our desperate need in this busy world for special places of beauty, solitude, silence, reflection, refuge and peace.

Commercial air tour operations over our 63 national parks and other protected areas are fundamentally incompatible with all this, with the very reasons for which we invented national parks over a century ago.

Nowhere is this clearer than in our own parks, where Hawai‘i Volcanoes was inundated by an average of 11,376 annual overflights from 2017 through 2019 and a high of 16,520 in 2017, the highest in our country.

Haleakala ranked second at 4,839 overflights, way ahead of third-place Badlands at a still-destructive 1,194 overflights. These are not the conditions we intended, need and deserve.

In 2000, Congress, led by our own Sen. Daniel Akaka, passed the National Parks Air Tour Management Act. The law required the National Park Service, responsible for protecting our parks, and the Federal Aviation Administration, responsible for regulating our skies, to work together to set up Air Tour Management Plans (ATMP) for our most heavily-impacted national parks. The process dragged on until 2020 when a Hawai‘i Island citizens group won a landmark ruling in federal court ordering implementation of the ATMPs. NPS and FAA have proposed ATMPs for Hawai‘i Volcanoes and Haleakala, with public comments invited until April 1.

The Hawai‘i Volcanoes draft ATMP starts by rejecting a no-action alternative. It explains in detail how “they would result in unacceptable impacts to park natural and cultural resources, wilderness character and visitor enjoyment.”

The draft ATMP then lays out three other options.

Alternative No. 2 would prohibit all tours within 1/2 mile of the park boundaries and below 5,000 feet above ground.

Alternative No. 3 would allow overflights along the coastal and central areas of the park, with a to-be-determined limit on the annual number of flights, and with a minority of days being designated no-fly days.

Alternative 4 would focus allowable overflights on the east rift zone (Pu‘u‘o‘o) with similar conditions.

True to form, the well-oiled tour helicopter industry, which believes it owns the skies and has no regard for community disruption and other ground impacts, opposes the ATMPs. It claims, in the words of one leader, that “air tours are a valid part of our visitor experience;” “allow visitors accessibility;” will “force aircraft into potentially unsafe conditions;” and “air tours would have to reroute over other parts of the island.”

None of these claims hold up.

If we wreck our parks for tourism, then we should rethink tourism, not our parks.

If conditions are unsafe, aircraft should not fly at all. The implied threat to increase disruption beyond park boundaries if they don’t have free rein within our parks shows why this industry can’t be trusted and why we should act to severely curtail their operations throughout Hawai‘i.

We should enact full protections for our national parks and ban tours outright in the ATMP areas.

If you agree, your own input is needed now.

The comment period for both Hawai‘i Volcanoes and Haleakala is through April 1.

Please note that the NPS asks for “substantive comments,” meaning not just support for one of the alternatives but exactly why that one and not the others.

To review the ATMP proposals and comment go to the first page of my website at case.house.gov and click on my latest e-newsletter.

Our national parks need you.

•••

U.S. Rep. Ed Case represents urban O‘ahu, and is a member of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources and its Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
Source: The Garden Island

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