Court upholds ban on helicopter tours above Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park

A federal circuit court has upheld a recent prohibition on helicopter tours over Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Badlands National Park in South Dakota, rejecting motions from aircraft companies to repeal the ban.

The ban on commercial air tours, which went into effect last month, was the result of an air tour management plan completed by the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in mid-November.

Specifically, the plan put an end to all aerial tours and within a half mile of the park’s boundaries, with a goal of preserving natural and cultural resources, sacred tribal sites and wilderness character, according to the government agencies.

In January, three aircraft tour companies — Badger Helicopters, Black Hills Aerial Adventures, and Rushmore Helicopters — petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to review the plan.

Two advocacy groups motioned for “intervenor status” on behalf of the federal agencies in February: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. The groups were granted that status the next month.

“Hopefully, we are in the final stages of our efforts to restore control over their skies to the national parks,” Peter Jenkins, PEER senior counsel, said in a statement.

The implementation of the air tour management plans in Badlands National Park marks the latest victory in the environmental groups’ attempts to enforce the terms of a 2000 law.

According to PEER, the National Parks Air Tour Management Act requires the FAA and the National Parks Service to develop plans that prevent commercial aerial tours from disturbing wildlife and visitor experiences in national parks.

While no relevant action occurred for 22 years, a PEER lawsuit triggered a court-ordered timetable for adopting these plans at more than 20 national parks, according to the group.

In early May, the helicopter companies motioned for a court-mandated stoppage on the aerial tour bans until the court review concluded.

“Absent a stay, petitioners will suffer irreparable harm in the form of unrecoverable economic loss that threatens their existence,” a memorandum accompanying the motion argued.

The memo maintained that the federal agencies had employed “various and inconsistent standards” when conducting a noise impact analysis.

The companies also argued that the bans could result in environmental harm, citing an FAA concern that without permitted air tours, the flights would “simply continue and get as close as possible to the park area for viewing the monument.”

Nonetheless, the circuit court on Friday denied that motion for a stay, for the time being maintaining the suspension of flights over Mount Rushmore and the surrounding Badlands.

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