Plan says no to flights over faces

Leslie Silverman
By Leslie Silverman
The  new air tour management plan (ATMP) for Mount Rushmore National Memorial will prohibit commercial air tours over the park and within one half mile of the boundary of the park. The plan was completed by  the National Park Service (NPS) along with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in mid-November and goes into effect 180 days from the date of signature.
The National Park Air Tour Management Act of 2000 requires all commercial air tours over national parks, or over tribal lands within or abutting national parks, to apply to the FAA for permission to do so. It also requires the  FAA in conjunction with the NPS to establish air tour management plans for parks or tribal lands for which applications are submitted. 
A 2012 amendment to the law allowed the FAA and NPS to enter into voluntary agreements with air tour operators in lieu of developing management plans.
The act did not come under scrutiny until 2019 when a lawsuit brought by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Hawaii Coalition Malama Pono sought to have the FAA and NPS complete air tour management plans or voluntary agreements at seven specified parks. That lawsuit did not cover any national parks within the state of South Dakota.
However on May 1, 2020, the court granted the petition and ordered the FAA and NPS to file a proposed plan for 23 eligible parks. This list included both Mount Rushmore National Memorial and  Badlands National Park.
The plan for Badlands National Park will require air tour operators to conduct all air tours beyond one-half mile from the park boundary or stay at least 5,000 feet above ground level when over the park. 
Currently only two companies —Eagle Aviation out of Spearfish and  Black Hills Aerial Adventures  — have rights to fly into Mount Rushmore. The latter also conducts tours over Badlands National Park.
Black Hills Aerial Adventures owner  Mark Schlaefli says that this decision will impact his business tremendously, possibly forcing closure of his operations in the Badlands. 
“It is $5.5 million in possible loss. That is the value of what they are taking,” he said. 
Schlaefli was in Washington, D.C., for a hearing before congress addressing this topic when this interview was conducted. 
Schlaefli has long maintained that the entire process used in making the determination has been flawed. According  to Schlaefl, there were more than six meetings with tribal leaders but  Pine Ridge  leaders never participated. He said the closest tribal participants came from the Northern Plains tribe, calling that an “incredible reach.”
He also questions the environmental aesthetics of the memorial as a whole, saying the parking lot is its central feature. “It is not like Glacier National Park,” in terms of its natural and environmental essence. 
Schlaefli calls the claim that helicopters disturb falcons or bats “insulting to intelligence” saying his business is one of few that truly leave no trace.
“We don’t harass wildlife, we don’t cut trails, we don’t leave human waste. We’re not the issue,” he said.
Schlaefli wonders what the economic impact will be on Keystone, a town dependent on tourist dollars for revenue.
“People come to Keystone specifically to fly with us,” he said, saying his business is an “economic generator” for the town.
Sandi McLain, Keystone Town Board president ,called the plan “overreaching” and said the plan will affect revenue in the community.
“Attractions pull in a majority of the revenue in the community, along with restaurants and lodging,” said McLain.
She provided input against the plan during the public open comment period.
“The government does not have the control of private enterprises,” said McLain, who is also a business owner. She said the ban is “not good for citizens and not good for Keystone in a “community where sales tax numbers mean everything.”
Schlaefli points out that Mount Rushmore is the first park with complete elimination taking place.
The ATMP for Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, does not eliminate flights altogether but rather phases out commercial air tours through attrition, with all remaining commercial air tours ceasing Dec. 31, 2029.
The ATMP for popular parks in Utah like Arches National Park or Canyonlands National Park still allow for many air tours per year on defined routes conducted over the parks and up to half-mile outside the parks’ boundary. 
The NPS and FAA entered into voluntary agreements with helicopter companies for commercial flights over the Statue of Liberty, with each helicopter company having a unique agreement.
There are no parks in Wyoming, North Dakota or Colorado with current ATMP restrictions or future ATMP plans. Only eight states have parks that will be impacted.
A press release from the NPS states that the Mount Rushmore National Memorial specific plan is a means to “protect the park’s natural and cultural resources, Tribal sacred sites and ceremonial areas, and visitor experience within the ATMP boundary.”
Mount Rushmore National Park superintendent Michelle Wheatley says, “we appreciate the engagement of the many stakeholders that worked with us on the development of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Air Tour Management Plan. Prohibiting commercial air tours will protect the cultural and spiritual significance of these lands to Tribes and will provide a peaceful setting for visitors to enjoy and experience.”

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