Western South Dakota's Only Ranch Station
Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Courtesy photo from Eco Flight

Helicopter tour companies lose first court battle

RAPID CITY, S.D. – New restrictions on air tours at Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Badlands National Park will stay in effect while a lawsuit against them proceeds, a federal court has ruled.

Three South Dakota helicopter operators want to overturn the restrictions: Badger Helicopters, Black Hills Aerial Adventures and Rushmore Helicopters. In court documents, they allege the new restrictions will cause “irreparable harm in the form of unrecoverable economic loss that threatens their existence.”

They asked the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to pause enforcement of the new rules while the lawsuit proceeds. The court denied that request Friday.

The litigation targets the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Interior and National Park Service. Two groups, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, have intervened to help defend the rules.

The public employees’ group issued a news release celebrating the court’s decision. The group’s lawyer called it an indicator of the litigation’s potential outcome.

“Given Friday’s ruling, we have every reason to be optimistic about our chances of success in defending the air tour management plans,” said attorney Colleen Teubner.

The air management plans took effect in May. They require air tours to stay at least a half-mile from the boundaries of each site.

Last year, when the plans were being finalized, the top officials at each site issued news releases explaining their rationale. Mount Rushmore Superintendent Michelle Wheatley said the Rushmore plan would “provide a peaceful setting for visitors to enjoy and experience.” Eric Veach, superintendent at Badlands National Park, said the Badlands plan was “reflective of the experience desired by visitors.”

The plans are rooted in a decades-long controversy.

Noise and other complaints about air tours over National Park Service sites led Congress to adopt the National Parks Air Tour Management Act in 2000. The law requires tour operators to seek permission for flights, and mandates the formulation of air tour management plans or similar agreements to regulate tours and mitigate their negative impacts.

Bureaucratic difficulties and delays stalled compliance. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued in 2018 to force the adoption of air tour management plans. The group won an order that was upheld by an appeals court in 2020, which led to a wave of plan adoptions at National Park Service sites across the country.

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