October 21, 2000

Federal Aviation Administration
Office of the Chief Counsel
Attention Rules Docket (ACG-200), Docket no. 30109
800 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20591

Re: Draft Aviation Noise Abatement Policy

The Sierra Club, on behalf of our 650,000 members, welcomes this comment opportunity on FAA’s proposed Draft Noise Abatement Policy. We are particularly interested in Goal 5 and Element 6 as to locations in national parks and other Federally managed, protected areas having unique noise sensitivities.

The focus of many of our comments is on units managed by the National Park Service. However, the following statement, and some of our comments, apply also to the broader range of "preserves", i.e., those Federally managed, protected areas thus bearing unique noise sensitivities. Please note, however, that the Statement which follows our Background Principles below is concerned specifically with scenic air tours.

Background Principles of Sierra Club re Natural Quiet

I. The sounds and silences of nature are among the intrinsic elements which combine to form the natural environment. Natural sounds amidst intervals of stillness are inherent components of the "scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife" within National Monuments and units of the National Park System and National Wilderness Preservation System (all hereinafter called preserves).

II. Natural quiet is the extended opportunity to experience only natural sounds amid periods of deepest silence. The quiet to be preserved or restored is as defined by the National Park Service as "the quiet at the lower end of the ambient sound level range that occurs regularly between wind gusts, animal sounds, etc., not just the average sound level." As the Park Service explains, "Lulls in the wind or interludes between animal sounds create intervals where the quiet of a sylvan setting is quite striking. In considering natural quiet as a resource, the ability to hear clearly the delicate and quieter intermittent sounds of nature, the ability to experience interludes of extreme quiet for their own sake, and the opportunity to do so for extended periods of time (are) what natural quiet is all about.

III. Many of these preserves are vast, open places of astonishing beauty and wildness. Each preserve area has a distinct and powerful aura, fully dependent upon the tenuous natural sounds and natural quiet. As such, these areas afford unique opportunities for undistracted respite, solitude, contemplative recreation, inspiration, and education. Further, these units also provide scarce refuge and undisturbed natural habitat for animals. Artificial, human-generated noise can disturb some sensitive animal activities. Therefore, noisy overflights which disturb the peace are not normally appropriate in our preserves.

Reference: National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, Report to Congress on Effects of Aircraft Overflights, 1994.

Statement Concerning Scenic Air Tours in Preserves

I. The Sierra Club supports management tools and methods to diminish or eliminate impacts from aircraft tours and landings (including bans of tours and landings wherever and whenever appropriate) upon National Monuments and units of the National Park System and National Wilderness Preservation System (all hereinafter called preserves).

II. A goal of agency managers should be to preserve and, where impacted, fully restore the natural quiet within their individual preserve and to address this issue in the preserve’s general management plan.

Key Statement: (a) Appropriate Control and Management:

The Sierra Club believes that, to be the most appropriate and effective, control over air tour use of airspace above preserves should entirely rest with the respective land management agencies (e.g. National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.) These are the agencies which are in position to understand the preserves most intimately, and which are charged to provide them the fullest possible resource protection.

(b) External Sources of Noise:

The managing agency should work with responsible parties to reduce or eliminate air tours or landings outside a preserve if needed to restore natural quiet within the unit. Federal managers of adjoining preserves should coordinate their management planning efforts.

(c) Monitoring:

The Sierra Club supports the establishment of appropriate noise standards and comprehensive baseline sound level monitoring and sound source inventories of all preserves. This includes continual assessment of noise from all human-generated sources and incorporation of public comments about noise impacts.

The foregoing Sierra Club Background Principles and Statement re Air Tours Over Preserves admittedly is significantly at odds with FAA’s past insistence on "exerting (FAA) leadership" in "balancing" the interest of the general public and/or aviation transportation vs. "the need to protect certain natural environments from the impact of aviation noise." (Reference: FAA 1996 Noise Policy for Management of Airspace Over Federally Managed Areas, issued Nov. 8, 1996.)

The historical record is this: FAA’s sense of "balance" or "leadership" in such matters has inevitably resulted in protracted, legalistic delays, litigation, and inappropriate tour aircraft noise derogation of premier preserves, such as at the Grand Canyon. This stems from its industry-promoting organizational culture, above all.

FAA has historically failed -- time and again -- to truly protect the natural preserves from the increasing impact of tour aviation noise. (See Statement of The Wilderness Society, re this same Docket.) The Sierra Club thus agrees with The Wilderness Society that FAA should relinquish its felt need to pursue this sort of "balancing" insofar as the environmental protection and assessment needs of natural preserves is concerned. The FAA should instead, at the earliest possible opportunity, cede control of environmental assessment , standards, and criteria, and related NEPA process-control, to the Department of Interior and other federal land agencies (BLM, Forest Service, etc.) insofar as regulation of air tours in noise-sensitive airspace, i.e. preserves, is concerned. This may require FAA support for amending present law as well as administrative procedure. The FAA would retain a constructive consultative role, particularly with regards to various airspace efficiency and safety matters.

A beneficial aspect of this change, from the FAA perspective, might be a welcome lightening of its ever-increasing responsibilities (becoming nearly impossible; see recent mass media coverage re summer airport gridlock and radar failures, etc) . FAA would no longer be beleagured with convoluted NEPA leadership and public-process responsibility for the preserves re air tours. Its role there would be consultative, and re-focused on safety and efficiency. FAA solicitors would also shed some of the enormous burdens of litigation which they now carry. FAA would no longer bear the heavy burden of extensive scientific noise modeling and baseline noise research involving preserves. This consumes so much staff time and fiscal resources. That duty would devolve more properly to NPS (or other land agency), perhaps in consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency.

FAA could then focus its concerns of "balancing" airspace efficiency and technical practicability and environmental sensitivity on air tours and other aviation noise over "non-preserve" areas. These still represent the vast majority of the agency’s airspace management responsibility. They present -- in themselves -- more than enough, ever-increasing headaches in "balancing."

The Sierra Club says all this because, historically, the FAA has ignored Section 4(f) of the Transportation Act, generally preferring end runs around it. It likewise has repeatedly ignored the first three "bulleted" items in its own Nov. 1996 "Noise Policy For Management of Airspace Over Federally Managed Areas."

Illustrative recent examples of FAA neglect of that policy’s public participation, communication, and "consult actively" requirements are

(1) Zion National Park (Utah)

The inadequate and misleading draft Supplemental Noise Analysis (June, 2000) (re Zion National Park) for the St. George (Utah) Replacement Airport was produced despite FAA "oversight". It is likely the Noise Analysis will have to be entirely redone. Section 4(f) of the DOT Act likewise still remains insufficiently addressed by FAA at Zion, in terms of this project. (For documentation, contact, Marty Ott, Superintendent, at (435) 772-0140.)

(2) Saddle Mountain Wilderness Area (Arizona)

FAA has failed to consult with USFS re this Wilderness, or designate the area as "noise-sensitive" in response to the USFS’ request of three years ago, as protection against the imminent derogation impacts of Grand Canyon air-touring upon said Wilderness. It also neglected its NEPA responsibilities in this regard. (For documentation, contact John Neeling, Wilderness Manager for this unit at North Kaibab National Forest, Fredonia, AZ, at 520-643-7395.)

(3) Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Parks

Noisy helicopter and propellor low level touring has grossly exceeded levels consistent with Sec. 4(f) of the DOT Act or with the National Park Organic Act, or with the spirit and intent of the 1987 Overflights Act (P.L. 100-91) and 1964 Wilderness Act. (For documentation, contact Fred Fagergren, Superintendent, Bryce Canyon National Park at (435) 834-5322), or Ken Weber at Grand Canyon National Park (520) 638-7753.)

In all of the specific instances cited, requisite FAA consultation has, in our view, been either lacking, insufficient, perfunctory, or otherwise not genuinely comprehensive, responsive or timely.

The Sierra Club italicized Statement on Air Tours (above), provides some further guidance which now may be applied to this next FAA Statement, from the current policy draft.

FAA Statement:

"A primary focus for FAA is to identify the extent to which low-level noise...may adversely impact areas with unique noise sensitivities. At present, no scientifically verified, predictable criteria have been established." We respond to this in three ways:

(1) Sierra Club’s introductory Statement on Air Tours (Sec. II-(a) suggests rather, that FAA’s more appropriate role would instead support NPS (or USFS Wilderness Managers, etc.) authority in making this identification and establishing criteria for assessing low-level noise impacts. (This would include establishing particularly stringent criteria for helicopters, which FAA acknowledges are perceived by the general public as more significantly annoying than other aircraft operating at the equivalent decibel level.)

(2) NPS policy prohibits the derogation of Park resources. Until such time as criteria are established, there exists the continuing derogation or Park resources by various low-level air tour impacts. Therefore, the current level of use should be made static (i.e., capped) for three years (providing enough time for NPS to develop criteria). If new criteria are not established in three years, then the level for existing tours should be decreased ten percent each year (based on the rate of use at the trigger year), to a level not to exceed ten percent of use at the three-year trigger date.

(3) The Sierra Club Statement thus means that in the creation of comprehensive noise management plans, low-level scenic tour aviation generally should adhere to NPS’ definition of natural quiet, and to NPS’ legitimate mission to fully protect or restore it. The standard for natural quiet should be based on audibility and not noticeability standards for both tour and commercial jet aircraft, and for general aviation.

FAA Statement:

"One of the cornerstones of the FAA’s Year 2000 aviation noise abatement policy is the continuation of aircraft source-noise reduction."

Sierra Club Comment:

(1) The FAA should make use of best available technology such as Global Positioning Systems to create flight corridors that avoid areas with unique noise sensitivities. It is likely that many commercial flight corridors over sensitive areas in use today are done so out of precedent and not necessity.

(2) The FAA should commit to establishing quiet technology standards for aircraft under 75,000 pounds, as well as State IV standards for larger aircraft. Quiet technology should address not only reduction of high pitched engine noise, but also deeper pitched low frequency noise.

Further Comment re Commercial Jet (High Altitude) Aviation:

The Sierra Club’s prefatory (italicized) Statement re Air Tours did not specifically address the regulation of high-altitude commercial jets traveling longer, point-to-point distances over Parks and Wilderness units.

However, it is becoming obvious that growing jet traffic is providing increasingly significant, frequent, and distracting noise impacts over otherwise pristinely quiet National Park and designated Wilderness units.

The nation’s airspace efficiency needs obviously make it impossible to route commercial transportation aircraft around so many Park and Wilderness units as now (or may in the future) exist. However, the FAA in consultation with the Park Service or other land agency, could designate a few national parks, and a few national Wilderness preservation units as priorities for restriction from at least the bulk of this traffic noise, at least for some critical period of the day (e.g. sunset and evening hours.) A short (illustrative only) list of premier, particularly vulnerable national parks to be so designated might then be

Grand Canyon
Rocky Mountain

(Four of these five are taken from the "short lists" of NPS priority parks for aviation noise concerns, found in Sec. and Sec. of the 1994 NPS Report to Congress on Aircraft Overflights.) This author previously made similar suggestions in his individual comments on FAA’s Advance Notice of Public Rulemaking on this subject, issued March 17, 1994. Six years later, the need for relief and respite in at least a few parks is even more apropros, as the projected amount of commercial jet traffic -- thus noise intrusions -- is steadily increasing.

A "short list" of a few wilderness units might be similarly drawn up for special protection and mitigation.

The Sierra Club urges the FAA, in consultation with the NPS or appropriate land-based agency managers, to so designate those few national parks and designated wilderness areas a places for special mitigation. The deference to the "power of place" of these special places would certainly represent a welcome maturation of our environmental consciousness and national pride in protecting them.

Affected transcontinental jet routes would thus be lengthened by only a few miles, in most cases. For example, the existing commercial east-west jet traffic routes could be "bowed" (slightly bent) 10 miles to either the north or to the south of the Grand Canyon National Park’s boundaries, with only minuscule additions to total flight mileage. This is not a new concept to FAA; it does this sort of accommodation all the time with respect to Military Special Use areas.


Visitors to our national parks and wilderness areas have a right to experience all of the natural environment, including the soundscape, unimpaired. Within units of the National Park System, natural quiet -- the extended opportunity to experience simple natural sounds amid periods of deepest silence – must be preserved for the enjoyment and inspiration of present and future generations. The FAA has an obligation to reduce and even eliminate intrusions on the experience of natural quiet. We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the proposed Noise Abatement Policy for 2000.


Dickson J. Hingson, Ph.D., chair
Subcommittee on Noise/Aviation
Sierra Club - Recreation Issues Committee

Commenter’s Mailing Address: PO Box 630132, Rockville, UT 84763

Sierra Club - Headquarters Mailing Address: 85 Second Street, San Francisco, CA 94105