Wind River Air

Tony Chambers’ Wind River Air Robinson R-44 helicopter takes off Dec. 23 from Jackson Hole Airport in Grand Teton National Park.

If not the helicopter pilot, then who? If not the Jackson Hole Airport board or Grand Teton National Park, then who? If not the Federal Aviation Administration, then who?

Who has the power, the conviction and the integrity to protect the serene skies over northern Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park?

Apparently it will require an Act of Congress.

Wind River Air owner Tony Chambers promised he would do his best to avoid overflying noise-sensitive areas of Grand Teton as he landed and took off from Jackson Hole Airport, the only commercial airport located inside a national park. GPS tracks clearly show he has broken that promise repeatedly.

Yet if the airport board were to call Chambers out — which it did, sternly, during an April 21 meeting — and revoke Wind River Air’s operating permit, they would be gambling with hundreds of millions of federal dollars that support the commercial air service that brings the tourism lifeblood to the valley’s economy.

Many of those visitors travel here for the opportunity to walk, climb or float through peaceful, untrammeled vistas free of the noise pollution they endure in cities. They want to glimpse wildlife without disturbing its natural rhythms. From sage grouse to elk to moose, noise-sensitive critters roam the valley.

The “thwock, thwock, thwock” of a low-flying commercial helicopter flies in the face of the wilderness qualities and serenity found in a national park. It assails the eardrums of humans and wild creatures alike. It’s a sound and an intrusion that should be reserved for medical emergencies and search and rescue.

In the 1930s, an air strip was established north of Jackson, long before Grand Teton National Monument was established. Commercial air service began in 1950, the year the airport was surrounded by national park. Airport officials and the National Park Service have worked together for decades to keep noise levels down to protect this special place.

Let’s not wind up like Hawaii — or Glacier or Grand Canyon national parks — where booming helicopter tours make it impossible to escape the noisy machines.

Last week, the Teton County Board of County Commissioners approved a resolution asking Congress to direct the FAA to craft rules banning scenic helicopter tours from Grand Teton National Park and surrounding private lands.

While airspace is not within the county’s control or regulatory scope, the visual and auditory byproducts of low-elevation scenic air tours are detrimental to residents and visitors to this valley.

We join the commissioners in requesting Congressional action and more strict, clear and permanent regulation on commercial air tours within our national park system. We have an obligation to preserve and protect wilderness and national park lands for “the benefit and enjoyment of the people” of current and future generations, and that means keeping their skies quiet.

By the News&Guide’s editorial board: Johanna Love, Rebecca Huntington, Kevin Olson and Adam Meyer.

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(2) comments

Judd Grossman

Peace and quiet is one of the things that makes JH special.

Roger Hayden

It is frustrating that no specific agency has or would admit to having the jurisdiction to more strictly regulate or prohibit helicopter tours in and around Grand Teton National Park. Depending on conditions, these aircraft, which we all appreciate for emergencies, can be quite loud, echo off the mountains, disturb wildlife and the quiet enjoyment of the park. The airport authorities renewed for another year a permit for a company that violated numerous times the terms of its agreement to operate out of the only airport in a national park. Will this operator's permit be renewed again next year, regardless of violations? Perhaps of greater concern is how many more operators will apply for permits.

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