Court rules agencies must follow air tour rules for parks

HILO — A federal court ordered two government agencies to comply with existing regulations in response to a lawsuit seeking air tour management plans for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., ordered the Federal Aviation Administration and National Park Service to produce a schedule for bringing 23 national parks into compliance with the Air Tour Management Act of 2000, The Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported Saturday.

The federal legislation requires vendors conducting commercial air tours over national parks and certain tribal lands to obtain a permit from the FAA.

The legislation mandated the FAA and park service establish air tour management plans that can prohibit or place conditions on the aerial tours.

The Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed the lawsuit seeking an injunction.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park reported the highest and fourth-highest, respectively, number of commercial air tours in the nation in 2018, a park service report said.

“This case arises out of the underwhelming — and ultimately unsuccessful — efforts of the (FAA) and National Park Service to regulate commercial sightseeing flights over national parks,” Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith wrote in the ruling.

The agencies argued the legislation’s timeline to establish management plans is “aspirational.”

Griffith wrote that a lack of a specific deadline does not enable officials to ignore legal obligations.

“Left to their own devices, the agencies have failed to comply with their statutory mandate for the past 19 years,” Griffith wrote.

Bob Ernst, founding board member of Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono, said “a little nonprofit” should not have been needed to bring about regulation of flying tours over the state’s parks.

“Our congressional delegation should have done it. Our governor should have done it. Our mayor should have done it,” Ernst said.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii praised the ruling, saying the agencies had not complied with the legislation for decades.

“In that period, the destruction of our national parks from virtually unregulated air tours has worsened exponentially,” Case said.

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