It’s simple to Gordon Hempton. If the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service want to preserve a sensitive soundscape, they’ll make Olympic National Park a no-fly zone.
While undeniably effective, achieving Hempton’s goal would require a significant departure from current practices.
The Park Service has the authority to lessen noise on park grounds, but existing regulations give it little power over aviation noise. The Air Tour Management Act, which requires commercial sightseeing tours to file an application with the FAA before they fly over national parks, gives the Park Service no jurisdiction. It wasn’t until 2012 that parks received authorization to seek voluntary flight path modifications from tours, a significant noise source in many parks.
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The law allows national parks to work with the FAA to develop air tour management plans — park-specific rules for sightseeing tours — but the efforts have yet to bear fruit.
“We have worked with the FAA since 1987 trying to create an air tour management plan for Grand Canyon, and since 2000 trying to put together a plan for other national parks,” says Kurt Fristrup of the Park Service’s Natural Sounds division. “The formal agency process has not yet produced a single agency plan.”
Just 13 of the 385 eligible national park units have committed to the initial phase of developing a plan. Mount Rainier National Park is one of the 13; Olympic is not. Rainier’s progress is on hold, and Olympic has yet to begin its plan.
Any large-scale flight plan alteration such as Hempton’s proposal must receive FAA approval. Environmental concerns are factored into flight corridor decisions, but the agency doesn’t consider the noise from planes at cruising altitude a threat to any ecosystem.
“In most cases, aircraft noise levels in national parks are not high enough to cause a significant noise impact,” FAA spokesman Hank Price said in an email. “Noise from en-route aircraft at high altitudes is either not heard or not noticed on the ground.”
Sensitive landscapes do receive extra examination, Price says. When the agency proposes or studies an aviation action – such as shifting flight corridors – it typically monitors the sound of aircraft up to 10,000 feet above ground level. When a national park could be affected, the ceiling jumps to 18,000 feet but is well shy of including jetliners that cruise at 30,000 feet.
Planes themselves are becoming quieter, though. In 1975, the FAA estimated 7 million Americans living near airports were subjected to “significant noise levels,” defined by the FAA as a daylong average of 65 decibels or more. Price says quieter planes and more efficient flight procedures have cut that number by 95 percent.
Furthermore, flight volume has dropped in the past decade. According to the Bureau of Transportation, 986,136 commercial passenger planes took flight in August 2005. In August 2013, that number had fallen to 844,071.
Sound levels in the U.S. airspace have decreased since the 1970s, but that’s of little comfort to Hempton. Until commercial aircraft are completely silent, he says, creating no-fly zones is the only way to preserve natural soundscapes.
Jake Bullinger: 253-597-8627