Plans For Air Tours Of 2 Hawaii’s National Parks Are Shameful - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Rick Warshauer

Rick Warshauer has been a conservation biologist on the Big Island since the early 1970s.

The concerned public can still appeal to their public officials, and they should.

The draft air tour management plans for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and also for Haleakala National Park are a sham that should not be empowered in any form.

The air tour industry has been running amok for years, disturbing not only these parks but also neighboring communities and habitats for native species. To continue such disturbance in any alleged attenuated form is more of the same, and none of it should be tolerated or authorized.

But the draft rules appear to propose regulations that effectively and permanently legitimize the tour operations in Hawaii’s national parks.

The continued auditory disturbance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is unjustifiable in that the park is a special place that should not suffer such disturbance for commercial purposes. That Hawaii Volcanoes National Park currently announces and apologizes for any park-mission flights is its own admission of the intrusion that these few such flights provide to the public and natural resources of the park. Similarly, the park restricts drone aircraft in recognition of their adverse qualities.

For the national parks to have to accept commercial intrusions as proposed in these draft rules is a travesty against the nature and purposes of the parks and the natural and cultural sensitivities therein.

Decades ago, before commercial air tour flights were occurring, the park could be true to its mission of protecting the resources of the park for their intrinsic values. This needs to be re-established and to be continued forward. Any amount of this industrial air touring in and near Hawaii’s national parks at any level has been the bane of such values and it needs to stop now.

A sunset as seen from Haleakala on Maui. Draft plans for the park threaten to further disturb the national park. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

Presently, the air tour industry’s overflights create an intolerable intrusion into the ambiance, natural values and cultural practices at these parks. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park the level of disturbance has been particularly bad and increasing for the last five to 10 years, especially in the Kilauea summit region where most of the visitor concentration is located. Similarly, much native birdlife and cultural activities are also centered here.

The air tour management plan FAQ sheet notes for the draft air tour management plans note that from 2017-2019 the average number of flights over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been 11,376 per year — evened out that is 31 flights a day, 365 days a year — and is a practical indication of what the industry would like.

The draft plan discusses possible mitigations, such as flight timing adjustments and encouraging use of “quiet technology” helicopters  — think 20-gauge vs. 12-gauge shotgun blasts.

Park Sanctity At Risk

While the proposed draft is a vast improvement and reflects the local park administration’s wishes to protect the park, it is not likely to be reflective of the air tour industry’s desires, nor is it reflective of the location of Kilauea’s volcanic activity over the last few years.

The final plan may be much different. Haleakala National Park’s plan is similar in intent, only with more intense flight conditions, and just as vulnerable to change. 

Additionally, the last paragraph of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park plan is a right of appeal granted to any party with a substantial interest in the plan to file a petition to appeal in a U.S. court of appeals.

Haleakala National Park has a similar appeals paragraph. This could negate all the careful planning.
Clearly, the only safe route to protect the parks is not to have any overflights in the parks at all.

In addition to the sanctity of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park airspace, the proposers of this rule need to consider the neighbors of the park, as they also share the consequences of these intrusions. The wasp-waist shape of boundaries of the park’s Kilauea summit area bring it very close to residential and other private and state lands, and all are under auditory assault.

The human neighbors have been subjected to the same intrusions to their quiet lives as has the park, as the flight sounds carry far and start early in the morning, especially during the periodic eruptive episodes at or near the summit. 

More importantly, the native organisms, especially the birdlife, are under the same auditory assault and are equally traumatized by the cacophony. This noise adversely affects the birdlife as it does the human life. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and surrounding areas are home to both common and rare bird life, and these noise intrusions are disruptive to their lives.

A conservation facility that raises Hawaii’s rarest birds is located on private lands just a mile and a half from the rim of Kilauea’s caldera. Here tour flight noise near the summit is loud at the facility’s open-air aviaries and flights over the facility are common. Even closer, endangered nene geese breed and forage in the summit area, on park and adjacent lands. 

For the FAA and National Park Service to authorize any flights in these proposed rules is a travesty to both the human and natural animal life nearby. It is decidedly an abhorrent and unneighborly act.

Native organisms are under the same auditory assault and are equally traumatized by the cacophony.

Experience has shown that flight numbers will be concentrated during periods and places of eruptive activity and it will be just as disturbing as it is now, even with far fewer annual flights.

The current disturbance to neighbors extends several miles outside the park’s boundaries, especially near the summit where so much of the industrial air tour activity is centered, much farther than the proposed half mile buffer.

Both FAA and NPS should abandon these proposed rules and start over with rules that will protect Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s cultural and natural resources and those of its neighbors.

All commercial tour flights should be legally restricted from all the park’s airspace and from a buffer zone of three miles outside its boundaries. We have seen in the past couple of decades that voluntary “fly neighborly” or other self-imposed restrictions by the air tour industry have not had any positive effect on the natural and human residents of this island.

Many have suffered immensely for their profits. Prohibitive and enforceable exclusionary regulations are the only solution.

These regulations also need to apply to fixed wing and other private aircraft. Military aircraft need also adhere to this same airspace exclusion. Their overflights have been particularly noisy and have also included night hours.

There are lots of other scenic places in Hawaii for the air tour operators to fly, well outside our national parks. If visitors want an aerial view of the parks they should instead go to Bing Maps or Google Earth imagery and to the parks’ web cams — both are quiet and free to all.

The National Park Service ended its public comment period Tuesday. However, the concerned public can still appeal to their public officials, especially their U.S. senators and House representatives, to carry their messages directly to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Each has demonstrated sensitivity and good sense in government decision-making.

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About the Author

Rick Warshauer

Rick Warshauer has been a conservation biologist on the Big Island since the early 1970s.

Latest Comments (0)

It would be informative to compare and contrast with rules governing other national parks, like Yosemite where it's my understanding that helicopter tours are entirely forbidden.

Thrasybulus_of_Athens · 3 months ago

1. None of this will change simply because tourism revenue is a critical component of Hawaii's economy.2. It helps that most of the "residential" flyover neighborhoods are actually zoned "agricultural", where the allowable noise limits are much higher.3. Noise would be greatly reduced if the helicopters simply flew at altitudes mandated by the (current, unenforced) ATMP.

fiftythree · 3 months ago

Does the Draft Plan present the reason why a certain class or type of people should have the privilege of destroying the tranquility of National Parks? So that they can get aerial panoramas directly instead of by drones or existing video? Why are these people allowed to destroy a major component of a N.P. experience for 99% of us? Why are they so special? Even if the Dept. of Interior (N.P. agency) were to charge and collect a fee for every passenger (and that should be a baseline factor in any thinking about this), and ALL of that collection were to go to providing FREE park access to Hawaii Island residents, it's still "selling out your soul:" getting in free in exchange for being buzzed. Is the federal Dept. of Interior being a lackey for air tour operators, as another way to "provide jobs" (for fuel truck drivers and mechanics and ticketing agents). Is there no end to selling out Hawaii, land, sea and air? I know the answer, just posing the Q anyway.

Colin12345 · 3 months ago

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