20 years later, we are still saying, 'Heli No!'
SPRING 2000 Does this campaign sound familiar? That’s because in the early 2000’s, a similar outfitter from a different company attempted to establish a commercial helicopter tour operation out of the Jackson Hole Airport. In May 2000, all but one member of the Airport Board voted to permit a scenic helicopter tour outfitter based out of California to operate out of Jackson Hole Airport. Board members insisted that their hands were tied in the vote: the operator would work under Jackson Hole Aviation, which itself has a contract to operate within Grand Teton National Park. Additionally, a vote in opposition to the operation might jeopardize the airport’s federal funding. The operator claimed that they would avoid designated noise sensitive areas, though they did not present a specific flight pattern. Flights were slated to begin in early June 2000.
SUMMER 2000 Community response was immediate. Grassroots opposition to scenic tours over the park was immense, and the Conservation Alliance organized a campaign against commercial helicopter activities called – you guessed it – Heli No!. The Conservation Alliance quickly collected over 3,000 signatories in opposition to scenic tours as a part of this campaign. By July, in response to mounting public pressure, the Airport Board had unanimously voted to ban helicopter tours based on the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000, which requires approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for new scenic flights over national parks. Charter service, however, would still be allowed, leaving the operator a loophole, as former Alliance Director Franz Carmenzind put it, “Big enough to fly a helicopter through.” The operator was prohibited from advertising scenic flights, but could still fly at any time for any reason.
FALL 2000 The operator sued the Airport Board later that summer, requesting that the memorandum prohibiting scenic flights be lifted and a considerable amount of money in damages. The operator also filed a complaint to the FAA, which provides the airport with millions in federal funding annually. The FAA rejected the board’s authority to prohibit scenic tours under the Air Tour Management Act, and the Airport Board, again with their hands tied, unanimously voted to lift the ban. By winter, the board had signed a contract allowing the operator to conduct and advertise scenic tours out of Jackson Hole Airport. At this point, the Alliance’s Heli No! petition had accumulated 6,000 signatories, and public opposition was strong.
The community’s opposition to these tours reached the ears of Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas (Rep.). Thomas listened to the community’s concerns about how these tours would impact local businesses, community character, public land and wildlife, and quality of life. Thomas suggested the introduction of a bill banning scenic flights over Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The Alliance pushed further, and encouraged legislation banning all scenic helicopter tours originating within Grand Teton at the Jackson Hole Airport. There were grey areas in the proposed legislation that might have still allowed the operator to take off and land at Jackson Hole Airport, even though taking off and landing within the park, despite not being strictly considered a “tour,” has just as much impact as a designated tour traveling the same distance.
In March 2001, all legislative efforts to permanently ban scenic helicopter tours out of Grand Teton and Yellowstone were put on pause when the Bush Administration froze the publication of all regulations penned under the Clinton Administration. Senator Thomas’s team was still planning to publish air tour regulations soon after the memorandum on legislation writing was lifted.
Public opposition to scenic helicopter tours, however, remained strong and consistent throughout. Heli No! was not going anywhere, and slowly, the operator realized this fact. The owner suggested that he might be open to canceling his scenic operation if the community would be more in favor of emergency medical services. This idea was short lived, as it became apparent that an emergency medical service provider stationed in Jackson Hole would be unprofitable. Community members and National Park Service officials were equally dissatisfied with this solution, as it left the door open for future scenic tour operators to proliferate in the future.
In April 2001, Senator Thomas reintroduced the bill banning scenic helicopter tours in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park. This time, it included a one-mile buffer zone around park boundaries. Community support of this lasting solution to the issues posed by scenic helicopter tours was immense. Momentum appeared to be shifting in favor of local people protecting their community, public land, and right to decide whether an out of state operator should be able to jeopardize them.
The FAA had delayed a decision regarding the tour operator’s complaint regarding the Airport Board’s decision to ban scenic tours. The complained requested that all federal funding be rescinded from the Jackson Hole Airport. The Airport Board asserted that the complaint was null because they had lifted the ban on scenic tours and extended the operator’s charter, per its request.
SUMMER 2001 These final efforts to keep helicopters aloft over Grand Teton were in vain. The Teton County Planning Commission had amended the County’s Land Development Regulations to include a ban on scenic helicopter tours out of Jackson Hole Airport. A group of organizations including the Alliance then filed a petition with the FAA requesting that scenic tours be prohibited until an extensive scientific impact assessment be conducted. Soon after, a group of nonprofit groups filed a lawsuit against the FAA, asserting that they are in violation of the Air tour Management Act and requesting that all scenic tours be halted until the case is decided. While this case was rejected, Town Council issued a resolution to the FAA reiterating the community’s request for studies into the safety and environmental impacts of scenic helicopter tours.
After observing the private operator flying through designated noise sensitive areas of Grand Teton National Park, the Airport Board notified the operator that they had 15 days to correct these violations at risk of contract termination. The operator did not admit to any such violations or suggest that he correct the problem.
Not long afterward, the operator left after over a year of sustained community opposition. We signed petitions, picketed the airport, and provided public comment. However, while the battle was won, the fight is far from over. The requested studies into the impacts of these helicopter tours were never conducted, and legislation prohibiting scenic tours from operating out of Jackson Hole was never passed due to Senator Thomas’s death in 2007. Now, a new operator has filled the void. Nearly 20 years later, with the threat of scenic helicopter tours renewed and our values of community character, conservation of the land we love, and strong local economy still intact, the same campaign slogan applies: Heli No!Back to Homepage