WEST GLACIER — A new plan will manage how helicopter tours are conducted over Glacier National Park in the coming years that will fulfill an objective outlined in the General Management Plan approved more than 20 years ago.
During a recent online meeting, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Park Service (NPS) explained Glacier's Draft Air Tour Management Plan as a means of allowing existing tours to continue, but with controls that haven't been in place.
"The preservation of natural sounds and the protection of cultural and natural resources, wilderness character, and preserving visitor experience are a priority," explained Glacier National Park Acting Superintendent Pete Webster.
"It protects the resources in the park by specifically putting some restrictions on certain activities. It restricts hovering. It restricts flights to one hour after sunrise," noted Glacier Nation Park spokeswoman Gina Kerzman. The rules will also be in effect for one hour before sunset.
Under the interim operating authority, the Park's control of the air tours had been fairly limited, including which routes were flown. In the past, some would fly north to Canada but now, the tours will be kept at a minimum of 2,600 feet above ground level, in a pair of loops on the west side.
"One of the other parts of the plan is that it removes the northern route that the air tour operators have been flying. It crossed the Divide and all the major valleys in the northern part of the park. Removing this route would provide greater protection for wildlife and recommended wilderness in that portion of the park." - Glacier Nation Park spokeswoman Gina Kerzman
There are only three operators still holding permits to fly tours, using a combination of aircraft and the draft plan calls for not adding any new operators in the years to come.
There had been as many as five tour operators at the start of this year and the three-year average of flights over the park has dropped to 144-flights per year, excluding the companies that withdrew. So that will be the limit for the remaining operators. Additionally, no new operators will be licensed to fly over Glacier.
"So the plan includes a provision that once an air tour operator sells or goes out of business, their operating authority then expires and it is non-transferable. So long term the goal is to eliminate air tours in Glacier National Park," Kerzman explained.
That's in keeping with the objectives of the 1999 General Management Plan, which called for the eventual elimination of air tours.
"The objective is that the current operators that are in operation at this time can continue operating, but under a stricter plan and then eventually phasing out air tours over Glacier National Park completely," Kerzman told MTN News.
The public comment period is closed with the FAA and the NPS continuing to work on the plan.