Helicopters have their place, but the sky over Crater Lake isn't one of them. Thanks to Ron Wyden, their racket won't be disturbing the serenity of Oregon's only national park - at least not for a while.
Back in 2009, a Bend-based company called Leading Edge Aviation proposed to run as many as 300 helicopter tours a year over the rim of the lake. Company officials said the helicopters would stay far away from the visitor center, would fly at least 1,000 feet above the lake and cause minimal disruption - "an RV on the rim road would generate more noise," one of them claimed.
But people who loved the park weren't buying that line. Fortunately one of the skeptics was Oregon's senior senator, who immediately went into action to make sure the choppers stayed grounded.
It wasn't easy. In February 2011 Wyden was able to get the Senate to pass a Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill making it clear that the National Park Service had the power to block the helicopter tours. But the Senate bill had to be reconciled with a previously passed House version, and wrangling over that consumed almost a year.
On Monday the Senate finally approved the reconciled version of the FAA bill, which already had been okayed by the House, and sent it to President Obama for his signature. It stipulates that the Park Service will be able to deny permission for helicopter flights without first producing an air tour management plan - "a bureaucratic hurdle," as Wyden says, "that wastes park resources and is not required at any other national park in the country."
Wyden says he has a commitment from the director of the National Park Service to "protect the fragile beauty" of Crater Lake. But there lies the rub: Future administrations might not feel so committed.
As Erik Fernandez of the conservation group Oregon Wild put it: "While we are optimistic that under Obama's leadership the Park Service wouldn't allow helicopters to buzz around Crater Lake, we are less optimistic about the Gingrich administration." He might have added that there's no reason to feel particularly optimistic about a Romney administration, a Santorum administration or a Ron Paul administration either.
Oregon Wild is backing a plan to designate Crater Lake and surrounding areas as wilderness - a step that would provide permanent protection not only against helicopter tours but also against ill-advised logging projects and other threats to the park's ambiance, environment and wildlife. The wider protection makes sense because, as Oregon Wild argues, "The natural beauty of Crater Lake extends far beyond Wizard Island and the caldera [to include] spectacular roadless lands both inside and outside of the official boundaries of the park." The wilderness idea enjoys the support of the National Park Service; it should get Wyden's support too.
So we're giving Ron Wyden one GLASS SLIPPER for taking an important step toward protecting Crater Lake from the helicopters. When he goes the distance and secures permanent protection for it in the form of wilderness status, he'll get the other one.