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Helicopter tour company worried new federal rule will hurt business at national parks

Montana operations largely unaffected
Posted at 10:56 AM, Dec 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-05 12:56:35-05

Helicopter tours over national parks are a bucket list experience for many tourists, but with new regulations set to take effect in April, it’s limiting where the flights can go.

“At Yellowstone, we actually fly to the west of West Yellowstone for the most part,” said owner of Yellowstone Heli, Mark Schlaefli said over Zoom on Monday.

Helicopter tour companies like Yellowstone Heli don’t fly directly over Yellowstone but now they won’t be able to do so at Badlands National Park or Mount Rushmore either.

It’s a huge loss for Schlaefli, who owns four other helicopter tour companies: one in Wyoming, and three in South Dakota.

“They’re basically taking away 9,000 flights from me. They’re taking from me over 5,000 at Mount Rushmore and 4,000 at the Badlands, and they’re taking every last one of them away,” said Schlaefli.

He must now conduct all his air tours beyond one-half mile from the two park’s boundaries or 5,000 feet above ground level when over the parks.

Mark Schlaefli

“For Badlands, we believe it’s going to put us out of business. And that represents a $2.5 million piece of what we’re trying to create,” Schlaefli said.

“Mount Rushmore, we’re going to work pretty hard to try to stay viable, but the value of what they’re taking away is close to $4 million and I don’t know how that’s going to go. We’re going to change our flight paths a little bit. It does put us outside the park and compresses us with other air traffic, and I have safety concerns about that that the FAA has completely ignored,” said Schlaefli.

However, others say it’s a necessary and long overdue move to bring down noise levels and protect the park’s natural and cultural resources.

“When an aircraft goes over, specifically at low elevation, it ruins the entire experience and they will complain about that,” said Shauna Baron, a naturalist tour guide at the firm Yellowstone Insight.

Baron gives tours throughout Yellowstone Park and is the founder of Yellowstone Trip Planning. She’s seen first-hand the impact helicopters can have, especially on the soundscape.

Shauna Baron

“When they do come through, it’s incredibly noticeable, and we definitely see the animals react to that,” Baron said.

“I’ve also personally witnessed helicopters coming through this area, trying to peek into Yellowstone a little bit. They do these area tours, where whole herds of elk, I’m talking hundreds of elk, will start running and panicking and burning precious calories that they didn’t necessarily need to burn that they’re going to need to get through these really harsh winters,” said Baron.

"And as a naturalist guide, we can't have them being so afraid that every time they see a car, vehicle or something that's a little out of the ordinary that they're going to disappear on us and we're not going to have those wonderful wildlife watching opportunities," Baron added.

It’s one reason some parks, including Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, began phasing out commercial flights last year.

But Schlaefli worries what it will mean now, planning for a certain future for his companies and employees.

“I think we have to look at every angle that we can to preserve what is basically my lifesaving investment. We’re not victims, we’re going to work hard to figure out a way to get past it,” said Schlaefli.