The view during a scenic flight in the Wind River Air Robinson R44 helicopter over the Bridger Wilderness of the Wind River Range. (provided/Wind River Air)

A pilot is uncertain whether he will try to operate helicopter tours from the airport in Grand Teton National Park after a former park superintendent called his plan “incompatible and inappropriate.”

Pilot and entrepreneur Tony Chambers revealed his uncertainty to WyoFile following a public session in which about 100 people opposed his proposal. About five people supported the plan to fly scenic tours out of the Jackson Hole Airport, across parts of Grand Teton National Park and over National Elk Refuge and National Forest land, including wilderness areas. 

“It was what I expected,” Chambers told WyoFile after the public comment session, which was arranged by the Jackson Hole Airport Board. Officials say the board is virtually obliged under FAA rules to issue a permit. Asked whether he would move forward and seek that permit, Chambers said, “I’m not sure.”

Former Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott, a member of the airport board, said there is a consideration beyond legal and statutory ones that a proponent of such a venture should weigh. Laws and rules might allow the flights, she said, and “then you’re confronted with your moral compass.

“This,” she continued, “is an incompatible and inappropriate use in any national park, adjacent to a national park in national forests,” and over wilderness areas.

Chambers is not on the Dec. 18 airport board agenda, he and officials indicated, out of deference for the hearing and to give himself and others time to digest the community reaction. He told the audience he hoped to wrap up airport authorization for Wind River Air in 60 days.

Three entities in control

Only three entities can prevent the enterprise from launching, airport officials said. Chambers has FAA permission authorizing his flights, he said, but can choose to withdraw his plan. The FAA is the second entity, but it generally doesn’t discriminate against types of operations unless safety is at issue.

Congress is the third entity. A representative of the National Parks Conservation Association said that her group could pursue action in Washington, D.C.

Tony Chambers tells an audience about his plans for scenic helicopter tours from the Jackson Hole Airport in Grand Teton National Park. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

“Rules can be changed,” said Sharon Mader, the group’s senior program manager in the Northern Rockies region. “I would like you to listen to the voices here.”

Jackson Hole Airport is the only commercial airport located completely in a national park. Some special rules apply. It operates under a lease agreement with the Department of the Interior. Rules prohibit scenic flights that originate at the airport from operating over mapped noise-sensitive areas in the reserve.

Those mapped areas include the Teton Mountains, the valley floor west of the park’s main thoroughfare, Highway 191, plus the northern end of the park. Any aircraft flying into or out of Jackson Hole Airport crosses some park property.

Chambers has suggested a couple of routes his tours might take. He said they could fly out of the park and over Elk Refuge and National Forest land, including parts of the Gros Ventre Wilderness. Another route could fly over the Jedediah Smith Wilderness of the Targhee National Forest just west of the Teton Range.

He told the group he prioritizes safety and discounted concerns over the Robinson R44 four-person helicopter he owns and would use. The world’s best-selling civilian helicopter has a history of deadly crashes that outpaces other makes and models, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

Wind River Air would operate several days a week offering several flights a day, Chambers told the audience. “I don’t envision it growing into several helicopters,” he said.

Noise is important, Chambers said. His son, one of a handful of supporters, said “there are louder automobiles,” than the R44.

“To resist startups like this would be to resist commerce,” Oliver Chambers told the group. A few more speakers backed Chambers, including Stefan Fodor, who said helicopters would not affect wildlife, as many fear. The airport already hosts “hundreds of flights a day,” he said. 

Private profit, public impact 

The authority and decision framework surrounding the issue is off-kilter, a Yale professor and Jackson resident told airport board members. “What’s the common interest,” that should be promoted, asked Susan Clark, adjunct professor of wildlife ecology and policy sciences at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Her research in Jackson Hole hasn’t suggested any public benefits from the flights, she said. On the other hand, “there are clearly special interests in play here.”

The vice chairman of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Kirk Davenport, also saw a public sacrifice on the altar of private profit. “I’m asking as a fellow community member not to monetize this,” he said to Chambers. If the tours fly, “everyone else will give up a little bit of their peace.”

Former climbing ranger Chris Harder photographed helicopters over Grand Teton National Park near where Wind River Air would fly. (Chris Harder)

Many opponents put noise intrusion on the wild landscape as the principal of their worries.

“I want to be able to go into the wilderness and not have to listen to airplanes of any kind,” Susan Danford said. “I’m 76 and I’m still willing to hike my butt out there and have that experience.”

Kelly resident Bev Boynton said “it’s fundamental to a wilderness area that you have quiet and tranquility.”

Hikers of the Teton Crest Trail, “one of the finest treks,” won’t come to the Tetons when they hear of the air tours said Mike Scheller, an Alta resident. “Tony’s going to be flying over them five days [a week], four times a day,” he said.

Chambers’ tours would be “another grain of sand adding to the problem” of noise pollution in Grand Teton, said retired climbing ranger Chris Harder. Colleague Jim Springer said he’s “looked down into the cockpits” of helicopters while climbing Guide’s Wall in Cascade Canyon, even though airships are supposed to fly considerably higher.

Wilson resident Joe Albright told the group he has asked federal authorities to reconsider their authorization for Chambers’ flights, principally on safety grounds. He questioned the helicopter’s ability to operate at the elevations contemplated on some of Chambers’ proposed routes.

Botanist Frances Clark appeared to summarize the majority opinion that Chambers’ operation would be “a thrill for very few people with an impact to many.” A helicopter tour is “sort of like having a Pterodactyl over your head,” she said.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Overflights are inappropriate use of the shared space of National Parks. They obliterate the peaceful experience causing adverse impacts for those on the ground – who are there in far greater number than the overflight customer. National Parks were created to make natural areas available to visitors not create opportunities for businesses to make money while destroying the experience. for others.
    Private profiting business should not take priority over. the publicly owned and shared natural sounds resource in a National Park.

    Learn more at Quiet!Glacier
    https://www.quietglacier.com/
    And petition:
    https://www.change.org/p/glacier-national-park-needs-our-help-to-restore-the-natural-soundscape-please-sign-quiet-glacier-petition
    Thank you!

  2. Everyone seems to be avoiding the obvious elephant in the room. If you want to get a handle on the problem of competing land uses and over-use, its quite simple. There needs to be a visitor capacity established for the entire Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA), including the airport, parks, forest, wilderness areas, refuges and all other public land were there are simply to many tourist. For example, look no further than the traffic jams between the airport and Jackson, traffic jams in Yellowstone, or witness the continuous line of hikers at the Green River Trailhead.

    Just about everyone in the GYA, including those that identify themselves as some sort of “greenie or conservationist” has there hand out for a piece of the economic pie. They have to in order to live in one of the most expensive places in the Rocky Mountains. Yet they are not willing to recognize they too are a large part of the problem. Do you really need more bikes, skiers, hikers, helicopters, limos, taxis, motels, restaurants, bars, T-shirt shops, guides/outfitters, retailers, coffee shops and drug gangs. If the answer is yes, then there is no stopping the demise of the GYA. If the elected (or appointed) local, state and Federal representatives are not on board then there is no solution. The same is true for the Park Service, Forest Service and other bureaus. The novel “Playing God in Yellowstone” published in 1986 clearly identified steps that the Park Service need to do in order to maintain and sustain the Park including the reduction of overnight facilities. Yet the Park’s hierarchy’s reaction was to band the book from being sold in the Park. No one needed to question the Park’s decisions or know the negative impact from concessions and other plans.

    Likewise, none of the Governors since Ed Herschler (1975-1987) has been willing to support designation of additional Federal land for conservation purposes to relieve the pressure in the GYA and promote economic diversity in other parts of the state. Yes, it can be accomplished without impacting coal, cows, wind and all the rest. Congressman Dick Cheney’s lasting legacy was promoting the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984. Unfortunately that was the last large scale action to set aside Federal land for something besides extraction. Today many places in Wyoming focus on the benefit of a outdoor recreation economy. As the tourism business grows so must new places be designated to accommodate those visitors.

    Controlled visitation can only be accomplished through a formal enforceable and implemented visitor capacity decision. If you can control the numbers, you can control the impacts. Likewise, the numbers of visitors should not be left up to the Park Service as I doubt God intended for them to be in charge.
    Should no new growth should be on the agenda?

  3. Good review of the public meeting. Nearly all area residents at the meeting strongly oppose this venture and said so in the strongest possible terms. I have hiked the Grand Canyon where heli tours are nearly 5 miles away from the heart of the national park and the distraction is unbelievable. When the air is calm you hear nothing but the buzz of distant helicopter during all day light hours. This venture offers profit for one person, is of no value to the local residents or the environment, it detrimental to the tranquility of our wildlife, and is a significant risk for tourists willing to fly near the extremes of the R44 performance. We don’t live in the flatlands, near sea level and the risk of heli-tours in rugged mountainous areas is significant.

    This endeavor should end before it begins.

  4. Visited Glacier NP in Montana about ten years ago; helicopter tours whump-whump-whumping, echoing off the mountains over the lakes for hours on end … fn awful.
    25 years between visits and won’t go back unless that assault of the ears is gone for good.
    But I guess that’s ok with George W above. And George, I do get the hatred of our disgusting, imbecilic fellow humans with their gd cell phones and the need to share their experiences with every other idiot they know.
    But you can actually express your disgust to them – by giving them the finger, or making some other signal that you can convey, showing them that you think they suck … helicopters just disturb the quiet and peacefulness you’re seeking, piss you off, and then there’s no satisfaction in making direct “personal contact” with your antagonist.
    Hell of a trade-off

    1. Dave Haire,

      Airships don’t belong in the GTNP as I clearly stayed in my original comment.

      If you read the story closely, the rules prohibit scenic flights west of the eastern highway and over the Tetons. They can travel just west of the park, and a tour operator already operates out of the Driggs, ID, airport.

      I have been in the park with choppers and planes overhead, and within eyesight but not within 1/2 mile. The noise level depends on many factors and may not be all that distrubing to the majority of backcountry visitors who are west of the highway assuming the chopper is east of the main highway.

      Front country visitors already put up with flights including non-scenic chopper flights. They also deal with an overcrowded national park which has a far greater negative impact on the ecosystem than flights. That is YOU causing a negative impact and all your tourist friends who fly in and gather in GTNP. That impact is far more damaging and distrubing to the park and its visitors. Try ZION in June and you get the idea.

      The ideal thing to do in this case is to simply have this guy fly his intended route and see what sort of impact he has. He sounds like a resonable person who wants to work with the community and limit his overall impact as much as possible given the nature of the activity.

      I will point out that Angus, as editor of the Jackson Hole Newspaper, had a big hand in pushing the industrial tourism economy which naturally leads to an interest in scenic flights and the lack of tranquility in GTNP. Some irony.

      Happy holidays to WyoFile, and its readers.

  5. When we are talking about helicopter tours technically Based on this, if you travel 1 hour in a helicopter, the chances of having any kind of crash, even a slight one, are 0.00439 percent. The maximum fatality per 100,000 flight hours was 1.44. And if you’re already in a helicopter crash (extremely rare), the chances of surviving the crash are about two in three. I think that in order to avoid accidents, we need to keep our helicopters secured. Thank you so much for posting this article.

  6. Somebody just hit the nail on the head and it wasn’t Angus, Airports don’t belong in National Parks, especially the James Watt aerodrome on critical sage grouse habitat. Keep the good work Wyofile!

  7. I’d rather not have any flights, plane or heli but I don’t see the flights as worse than what the anti-heli pontificating opponents support.

    “This,” she continued, “is an incompatible and inappropriate use in any national park, adjacent to a national park in national forests,” and over wilderness areas.”

    We built a AIRPORT in GTNP. That was the first mistake – totally incompatible and inappropriate but loved by locals.

    The very people who oppose the flights are the same people who aggressively hype industrial tourism in GTNP. They are thrilled to see hundreds of thousands of carbon spewing planes landing at the JH Airport, and cars traveling millions of miles in total to visit GTNP, or work here. The list of environmental offenses and hypocrisies that the opponents engage in can fill a book. These people have no standing to oppose these flights on environmental grounds, or a common interest in tranquility. They are guilty of similar crimes. The irreversible negative feed-back loop of industrial tourism started decades ago thanks to many of them.

    “Colleague Jim Springer said he’s “looked down into the cockpits” of helicopters while climbing Guide’s Wall in Cascade Canyon, even though airships are supposed to fly considerably higher.”

    Not just choppers, planes buzz over the lakes in the park and in the wilderness on a regular basis. Why is GTNP, the FAA, etc, incapable of enforcing flight rules if “airships are supposed to fly considerably higher”? That aside, the park happily hands out permits to film crews who buzz the Tetons.

    “ Kirk Davenport, also saw a public sacrifice on the altar of private profit. “I’m asking as a fellow community member not to monetize this..”

    Oh my God, that’s funny, Jackson Hole is all about monetizing industrial tourism as a public sacrifice on the altar of private profit. People, wildlife, and wild places are getting f’d over on a regular basis by private enterprise working hand-in-hand with public officials.

    No matter your position on flights from the JH airport, the wilderness ain’t what it used to be. Try to find solitude in Zion NP’s “Subway”. Forget flights, it’s overrun with people.

    “Hikers of the Teton Crest Trail, “one of the finest treks,” won’t come to the Tetons when they hear of the air tours said Mike Scheller, an Alta resident. “Tony’s going to be flying over them five days [a week], four times a day,” he said.”

    Great!!!!!!! Keep the hikers away. I can have the backcountry to myself. I already put up with the park’s rescue chopper, and commercial planes, including scenic flights out of Driggs. Fewer tourists is just what Jackson needs. A passing heli is far less annoying than hikers with selfie phones playing their favorite music, backcountry rangers with crackling radios, and crowds.