Restrictions on Aviation Use for Environmental Stewardship

A variety of aircraft, including military, commercial, general aviation, and aircraft used for National Park Service administrative purposes, fly in the airspace over national parks. While there are many legitimate aviation uses, overflights can adversely affect park resources and values and interfere with visitor enjoyment. The Service will take all necessary steps to avoid or to mitigate adverse effects from aircraft overflights.

—NPS Management Policies, Overflights and Aviation Uses 8.4

 A person in a flight suit stands near a fuel container while a helicopter is waiting nearby.
In the 1970s, empty discarded fuel containers from military jets landed in Noatak National Preserve. Rangers started a campaign to get these scraped pods out of the wilderness. Over several years they removed all the fuel pods and recycled 10 tons of valuable aircraft aluminum.

NPS Photo

Park Access by Aircraft

Aviation can provide an important, and in some cases the preferred, means of access to remote areas in certain parks, especially in Alaska. In such cases, access by aircraft may make an important contribution to the protection and enjoyment of those areas. Dependence on aviation will be fully considered and addressed in the planning process for those parks. Alaska parks have specific regulations concerning fixed-wing aircraft, published at 36 CFR Part 13, and 43 CFR 36.11(f).

In August 1987, Congress passed Public Law 100-91, the National Parks Overflights Act, which required the Department of the Interior to develop recommendations that “shall provide for substantial restoration of the natural quiet and experience of the park and protection of public health and safety from adverse effects associated with aircraft overflight.”

The concerns for aircraft noise and visual intrusion notwithstanding, sometimes the use of aircraft in these sensitive areas is necessary to prevent a larger and long-term impact to NPS resources. For instance, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an estimated 42 percent of the nation’s endangered and threatened species have declined as a result of encroaching exotic plants and animals. NPS policies direct that exotic species “will be managed—up to and including eradication—if control is prudent and feasible and the exotic species interferes with natural processes and the perpetuation of natural features, native species or natural habitats.” Aircraft may be used in support of this policy.

A helicopter spreads liquid herbicide over a burned landscape.
The aerial application of herbicide to eradicate exotic plants may be one of the uses of aviation resources in a national park.

NPS Photo

The Use of Aircraft, Helicopters, or Gliders Is Strictly Regulated in Most National Parks

Wildlife nesting habitat, expectation of solitude in wilderness areas, and safety are primary considerations with regard to overflight activities. Even aerial filming is rarely allowed and extremely restricted in most parks.

Even in the event of wildfires, NPS policy on fire suppression conducted in wilderness, including the categories of designated, recommended, potential, proposed, and wilderness study areas, is expressed in section 6.3.9 of Management Policies 2006. That section states that all suppression actions will be consistent with the “minimum requirement” concept in section 6.3.5 of those policies and the Wilderness Act of 1964 codified at 16 U.S.C. 1133 (c). The minimum requirement concept, as expressed in the Wilderness Act, directs:

“...[E]xcept as necessary to meet the minimum requirements for the administration of the area... (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.” Wilderness Act Section 4(c), 1964, 16 U.S.C. 1133 (c)

Park managers who contemplate the use of aircraft or other motorized equipment or mechanical transportation within wilderness consider the impacts to the character, aesthetics, and traditions of wilderness before considering the costs and efficiency of the equipment.

“No permanent heliports, helipads, or airstrips will be allowed in wilderness unless specifically authorized by statute or legislation. Temporary landing facilities may be used to meet the minimum requirements of emergency situations. Site improvements determined to be essential for safety reasons during individual emergency situations may be authorized, but no site markings or improvements of any kind may be installed to support nonemergency use. In Alaska, any prohibitions or restrictions on the use of fixed-wing aircraft should follow the procedures in 43 CFR 36.11(f).” Management Policies, 2006 Chap. 6 Wilderness Preservation and Management

Last updated: July 20, 2016