September 27, 2011
When it comes to battles over helicopters and national parks, the Grand Canyon usually takes center stage. But now the debate on how to balance air tourism with wildlife and noise concerns in America's national parks is coming to the Bay Area.
The National Park Service and the FAA are starting work on a public plan that could result in new limits on helicopter and airplane tours over the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
"There are concerns for wildlife being flushed out and being disturbed by hovering aircraft. It affects sea lions as well as birds," said Alexandra Picavet, a spokeswoman with the National Park Service.
Unlike at the Grand Canyon, or national parks in Hawaii, where tens of thousands of tourists each pay hundreds of dollars every year to ride helicopters above some of America's most spectacular national scenery, only two tour companies rule the skies above the national parks in the Bay Area.
Both San Francisco Helicopter Tours and San Francisco Seaplane Tours fly over the Marin Headlands, Alcatraz, the Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge and other key landmarks that make up the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The FAA allows the helicopter company to fly up to 2,900 flights a year, and the sea plane company to fly up to 2,190 flights. Under the new rules, which will come out in draft form next year, the companies could face additional limits on the hours, the routes and the number of trips they take.
Picavet said one concern is timing as two major events approach: the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in May, and the America's Cup sailing finals in 2013. Both should result in a significant spike in Bay Area tourism. "We are looking at more interest in air tours," Picavet said. "We'd rather be prepared for that kind of increased interest than retroactively try to work through it."
The new "Air Tour Management Plan" is required for every national park under a law Congress passed in 2000. Similar plans are under way at Mount Rushmore, Hawaii Volcanoes, Death Valley, Big Cypress, Mount Rainier and Statue of Liberty national parks.
Steve Price, the owner of San Francisco Seaplane Tours, said he's been following the process carefully. "They are going to limit the number of flights is my guess," he said. "It will restrict our growth, but it will allow us to stay here."
Price's company takes visitors for rides in a deHavilland Beaver, a historic seaplane with a big radial engine, six seats and sightseeing windows. The plane takes off from the water off Sausalito and flies over downtown San Francisco, along the waterfront, north to Alcatraz, around Angel Island and past Tiburon. The cost is $160 per adult for the basic 25-minute trip, and $205 for a longer, 35-minute route that goes around Mount Tamalpais and down the coast, over the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Price said he flies high enough not to bother wildlife or hikers seeking solitude. "Most of what we do is over the water. We don't get any complaints," Price said. "We've outfitted our aircraft to be extremely quiet."
The FAA and park service are wrapping up the part of the rule-making called the "scoping process." The last day for the public to comment on the scope of the plan is Wednesday. Next year, a draft environmental assessment and draft rules are expected, followed by more public input and hearings.
At the Grand Canyon, years of complaints from hikers, river rafters and biologists that whirring rotors are disrupting the serenity of the park have resulted in a drawn-out battle between the air tour industry and critics. Following several accidents, the FAA banned tourism aircraft from flying below the rim of the canyon and set strict routes. The agency allows roughly 93,000 flights a year. In June, the park service proposed cutting that to 65,000, with a requirement air tour companies adopt quieter technology, such as shrouds on helicopter rotors, within 10 years.
Environmentalists welcome the new planning process for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. "We feel it is necessary, not only at this park, but nationwide. It's important to protect the visitor experience and wildlife," said Neal Desai, associate Pacific region director with the National Parks Conservation Association. "We're hoping in this case that the key elements of solitude -- which is important for places like Muir Woods and the wilderness areas of Point Reyes National Seashore -- are considered and respected."
Source: mercurynews.com, Sept. 27, 2011, updated Sept. 28, 2011