Air tours may be limited on Tomales Bay

08/11/2011

Plans to mitigate noise disturbances from low-flying commercial aircraft in and around Muir Woods, Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore are now being developed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in cooperation with the National Park Service. 

The proposed regulations would limit commercial air tour operators from flying below 5,000 feet over and within a half-mile buffer zone surrounding the parks. Though military and other general aviation aircraft would be exempt, as would air-tour operators in emergency situations, the restrictions could  effectively reduce the number of low-flying flights that occur over Tomales Bay. 

The FAA has been working over the past 11 years to establish similar air tour management plans at federal parks throughout the country. Prior to implementation, each proposed plan must undergo a six-phased environmental review process. That process, organized and paid for by the FAA, is now underway. 

At the Seashore, the regulations would serve mostly as a formality. “We really don’t have any commercial air tour flights—at least that we are aware of—going over the Seashore itself,” said spokesman John Dell’Osso. Commercial airliners regularly fly overhead, but they do so at an elevation well above 5,000 feet.  

Two local air tour operators are currently licensed to charter flights in the areas proposed for regulation: San Francisco Helicopter Tours and San Francisco Seaplane Tours. Both operations are allowed approximately 5,000 annual flights in the area. Whether or not those annual allowances will change has yet to be determined as the plans are developed further. 

Gordon Bennett, a local environmental activist and president of Save the Seashore, believes that number is inordinate. “5,000 flights per year is absolutely ridiculous,” he said. 

The point of visiting a federal park, Bennett said, is in part to escape the hubbub of industrial society. “If you’re on a ranch and there’s a tractor going, maybe it’s not an issue, but if you’re in a wilderness area, you’re not supposed to hear airplanes or those kinds of noises,” he said. “The park is mandated to do everything possible to push those into the background.”

San Francisco Seaplane Tours owner Steve Price was not concerned that the plans could or would negatively impact his business. “The only way this will affect us is if we greatly increase our operation,” Price said. “And we don’t have any plans of doing that.”

Still, Dell’Osso said the regulations, at least in terms of elevation restrictions, could have greater implications for Tomales Bay. “If you take into account the half-mile buffer zone that would be included, at least with Point Reyes, that nearly covers all of Tomales Bay,” he said. The specifics of the buffer zone will likely be a central focus as the regulations are determined in coming months. Many locals have for years expressed concern over potential wildlife disturbances from low-flying flights over Tomales Bay.

Public comments on the plans are now being heard by the FAA and park service. Two public meetings are scheduled to allow for suggestions, questions and comments. The first will be Tuesday, August 16, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at GGNRA headquarters, at Fort Mason Building 201, in San Francisco. The second, an open house, will be the following day, August 17, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Bay Model Visitor Center at 2100 Bridgeway, in Sausalito.