National Park Service proposes strict rules for scenic air tours

Plans propose no more flying at dusk or dawn, or within a half-mile of the ground at Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands and Glen Canyon.

(Franciso Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) A view of Bryce Canyon, taken in 2014. Proposed new National Park Service regulations soon may limit the number of aerial tours that can be flown over Bryce, as well as Arches and Canyonlands national parks and other Utah natural wonders.

People who like to take aerial tours of Utah’s national parks may soon see stringent limits on where, when and how low pilots can fly over them.

Under a court order resolving a long-running lawsuit last year, the National Park Service is now proposing management plans governing scenic air tours after decades of outsourcing the job to the Federal Aviation Administration.

On Friday, it released a draft plan for Bryce Canyon National Park, where commercial air tours have long enjoyed wide latitude with hundreds of flights a year, as well as for Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and Rainbow Bridge and Natural Bridges national monuments.

These tours would no longer be allowed to fly at dawn or dusk or come within a half-mile of the ground.

Some park visitors and environmental activists have complained these flights disturb the peace and quiet they have come to seek at the park.

The potential for conflict is worse at Bryce than other parks because many visitors hike along or just under the canyon rim, spots that are not far from where the scenic air tours travel.

Most of the Bryce tours have been provided by a father-and-son team Paul and Alex Cox, owners of Bryce Canyon Airlines & Helicopter, operating out of an airport just outside the park boundary since 1977. The Coxes have long boasted of flying “low, slow and up close” in their marketing materials, which show their chopper and plane flying below the canyon rim and near Bryce’s iconic hoodoo formations.

That kind of flying likely would not be allowed under the parks’ proposed plans, which also assign operators specific routes to which them must adhere.

“Except in an emergency or to avoid unsafe conditions, or unless otherwise authorized for a specified purpose, operators may not deviate from these routes and altitudes,” the plan states.

Voicemail messages left Friday on Paul Cox’s home and headquarters lines were not returned.

Within the park’s 35,835-acre boundary and a half-mile buffer, aircraft heading east are to fly at 13,500 feet above sea level, and those flying west must do so at 12,500 feet. Aircraft are to fly at least 2,600 feet above ground level, which is far higher than operators have flown in the past.

“The draft plan is based on current operations and reported air tour levels at Bryce Canyon National Park,” said park Superintendent Jim Ireland in a statement. “Its purpose is to ensure that park resource values, including natural sounds, wilderness character, visitor experiences, wildlife and other natural and cultural resources are protected.”

The Park Service will livestream a public meeting on Bryce’s draft plan on Sept. 27, from 2:30 to 4 p.m., on YouTube. The meeting for Arches’ plan will be Sept. 20, and the Canyonlands plan will be discussed Sept. 22 — both starting at 4:30 p.m. The agency will accept public comment through Oct. 3 on Bryce’s, Canyonlands’ and Arches’ planning websites.

The two Utah parks are among 24 that the park service intends to finalize air-tour management plans for by August 2022. The move comes in response to an order from a federal judge, who concluded last year these parks’ lack of management plans violated a 20-year-old law requiring such plans.

Under plans proposed for the Utah parks, tour groups can forget about flying over Bryce when the hoodoos are bathed in the crepuscular glow of dusk or dawn. Tours would not be able to enter park airspace until two hours after sunrise, and must be out two hours before sunset. The parks may also designate no-fly periods for special events.

“Sunrise and sunset are important times of the day for wildlife and visitor use and experience. Biologically important behaviors for many species occur during this time, such as prime foraging, mating, and communication,” the draft plans state. “The hours of operation provide quiet periods of the day during which visitors can enjoy natural sounds and preserves opportunities for solitude in designated wilderness areas.”

The plans would allow operators to fly an hour closer to sunrise and sunset, however, if they convert to “quiet technology aircraft.”

Bryce’s plan proposes to limit the number of flights to 515 per year, aligning with traffic volumes over the past three years. Bryce Canyon Airlines & Helicopters would get to fly up to 486 tours a year, about a third of the 1,300 it currently has the “interim” authorization to fly.

The limits proposed for Arches and Canyonlands are similar to those as the Bryce plan, except flights are to stay at least 2,900 feet above the ground. The number of flights would be limited to 309 a year at Arches and 367 at Canyonlands, reflecting the average number of tours provided over the past three years. Most of those flights would go to Redtail Air.

The draft plans include provisions for avoiding nesting birds. While none of parks are now home to any endangered California condors, they contain plenty of suitable habitat that park officials would like to see occupied by the huge scavenging birds that are coming back from the brink of extinction.

The management plans would require flight operators to report any condor sightings within 24 hours. If the endangered bird takes up residence in the parks, flight routes would be adjusted to stay at least a mile from sites where they nest, feed or congregate.