Planes Fly Too Loudly and Too Low Over Bay Area National Parks, Lawsuit Says

March 21, 2023

Mar. 20—Federal park officials have ignored environmental laws for aircraft overflights and allowed commercial planes to fly too low and too loudly over four national parks in the Bay Area, advocates said in a new court filing.

The parks are the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco and Marin counties; Point Reyes National Seashore; Muir Woods in Mill Valley, and the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park at Fisherman's Wharf.

Despite a court order requiring plans to minimize airborne noise and other disturbances in national parks with 50 or more commercial overflights a year, the environmental advocates said, rules submitted in January by the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration allow flights over the parks to continue at their same number — as many as 2,548 a year — and the same volume.

"The air tour management plan for San Francisco's national parks is a disgrace and should be rescinded," said Paula Dinerstein, attorney for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, the lead plaintiff. "These agencies did not just cut corners, they completely shirked their legal obligations to protect wildlife, natural soundscapes and the visitor experience from disruption caused by commercial tours."

The plaintiffs also included the Marin Audubon Society and the Watershed Alliance of Marin. They asked a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., on Monday to rescind the government agencies' actions and limit commercial flights over the four parks to 50 a year until the agencies present a plan that complies with the law.

In their court filing, the advocacy groups contend federal law requires government officials to submit an environmental report showing how their plans for flights over the parks would minimize impacts on visitors and wildlife. The groups said the two agencies did not study the impacts of overflights or impose any new restrictions, but simply allowed flights to continue at the same altitude and frequency as in recent years.

The Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and conservation groups urged the government to keep overflights at least 2,000 feet above ground level to avoid disturbing migratory seabirds, seals and other wildlife, the advocates said. But they said the agencies imposed a 2,000-foot buffer only over dairy herds at Point Reyes, and allowed lower flights in all other areas.

"Citizens have reported scores of illegal overflights across these parks to the FAA for months without any abatement," PEER said in a statement. "These air tour rules violate federal planning laws and lock in current flight levels with inadequate assessment and mitigation of noise, wildlife disturbance, and other adverse impacts."

Reach Bob Egelko: begelko@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @BobEgelko

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