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Park Service can deny copters at Crater Lake

The National Park Service soon will have the authority to deny air tours over Crater Lake National Park, thanks to the Senate's passage of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill on Monday.

Oregon's U.S. senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, included language into the bill that would allow the agency to reject air tours over the park without having to first prepare an air tour management plan.

Crater Lake has been the only national park that required the plans, which are costly and wastes limited park-staff resources, Wyden noted. The bill clarifies that the agency has the wherewithal to deny air tours if they will likely have a negative impact on visitor experiences or park resources.

"The peace and tranquility of Crater Lake will remain without the droning of helicopter fly-over tours," Wyden said in a prepared statement.

The senator added that he had a commitment from NPS Director Jon Jarvis to "protect the fragile beauty" of Crater Lake. Jarvis had worked as a biologist at Crater Lake early in his career.

The bill, which passed the House last week, now goes to President Barack Obama for his expected signature.

The issue arose when Bend-based Leading Edge Aviation submitted an application to the FAA in 2009 for a permit to fly helicopters over the park. The application sought approval for as many as 300 flights a year. Aircraft would remain at least 1,500 feet above the ground and none could operate inside the caldera, according to the firm.

At the time, park officials expressed concern about the impact that noise from the helicopters would have on the park, which is noted for its serene beauty.

Democrats Wyden and Merkley included a similar amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill in 2011, but differences between the Senate and House versions delayed passage of the legislation until this month.

Oregon Wild, a Portland-based environmental group which hopes to see a permanent ban on air tourism around the lake, applauded the action.

"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," said the group's wilderness coordinator Erik Fernandez, referring to GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

"We applaud Senator Wyden for taking this very important step forward that buys us time to enact permanent protections for Crater Lake that are less susceptible to shifting political winds," Fernandez added.

The group has proposed wilderness protection for some federal forestlands adjacent to the park.

With a depth of nearly 2,000 feet, Crater Lake is the nation's deepest lake. The lake formed after the peak known as Mount Mazama exploded some 7,700 years ago, leaving a deep caldera.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.