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Superhighways in the Sky

The FAA is burdening Bay Area communities and wildlife habitats with aerial freeways for jet planes. And even the National Park Service can't stop the noise.



On a recent cloudy afternoon in the middle of a wilderness area within Point Reyes National Seashore, Judy Rocchio lay down and closed her eyes. An hour or so north of Oakland, the national park in Marin County offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and hikes through pristine and undisturbed wildlife habitat. We had just trekked about one mile on Bull Point Trail, a fairly easy route that takes visitors away from the car traffic of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and toward the peaceful quiet of Drakes Estero, the estuary in the heart of the park.

When we stopped to rest near a particularly picturesque overlook of the estero — the West Coast's first federally protected marine wilderness area — Rocchio plopped down in the yellow dandelion-studded grass, and listened for unusual or interesting nature sounds. We were far enough away from motor vehicle traffic and all other park visitors that the only sounds we could hear were natural ones — cows mooing (from nearby ranches), birds chirping, insects buzzing. We had found true quiet — just forty miles away from the urban bustle of the East Bay.

For more than twenty years, Rocchio has worked in the natural resources division of the National Park Service (NPS) in the agency's Pacific West regional office in San Francisco. In her role as an NPS program manager, Rocchio is responsible for helping protect three ecological resources that park visitors may often take for granted: air quality, dark night skies, and natural sounds. In terms of the soundscapes of national parks, Rocchio is keenly aware of the noises that come from nature — and ones that do not. When we first started hiking, she told me she was glad I wasn't wearing noisy synthetic pants.

"All we hear is birds and our own footsteps," she said. "We, here at Point Reyes, treasure the silence, the quiet. And it's not really silent, is it? When you're quiet in nature, you start to hear things."

But as we sat near Drakes Estero, trying to pinpoint all the natural sounds around us, a low rumbling noise began to emerge in the distance. At first, the sound could almost be mistaken for the sound of waves crashing on a far-off beach, but after a few seconds, it was clear that the sonic intrusion was manmade. Rocchio looked up. A plane was coming. The noise grew louder, though we couldn't spot the jet — perhaps because it was too cloudy that day or because the flight wasn't directly overhead. After several minutes, the noise faded and we were back to quiet.

For years, Rocchio and NPS officials across the country have worked to protect the natural sounds of parks by minimizing and eliminating unnatural noises. And most recently in the Bay Area, those efforts have centered on efforts to reduce the impacts from commercial jets, the largest source of noise pollution for many wilderness parks.

But the NPS has no control over what happens in the sky. That's the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which, in late 2012, began a major project in Northern California that is fundamentally shifting how planes fly in and out of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Sacramento international airports. Those airports and the airspace around them make up what the FAA calls the NorCal Metroplex — a region that's in its final stage of completing a large reorganization of flight routes through the FAA's so-called "Optimization of Airspace and Procedures" project.

That initiative, broadly aimed at approving the efficiency of air travel, is part of the FAA's long-term plan to modernize US airspace by transitioning from a ground-based system of air traffic control to a satellite-based model that relies on global positioning system (GPS) technology. The FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System, known as NextGen, allows the agency to guide planes on more direct routes via GPS, which can enhance safety, minimize delays, and save fuel.

But while there is broad consensus that the shift to GPS technology is sensible and that the FAA should work to reduce aircraft exhaust emissions, the rollout of NextGen has sparked controversy and litigation. That's because the new system is effectively steering jetliners onto new superhighways in the sky. These new aerial freeways are concentrating commercial jet flights over certain areas — including Point Reyes National Seashore — that are now being forced to shoulder disproportionate levels of noise pollution.

A growing group of opponents also say the FAA's implementation of NextGen, in Northern California in particular, has been marred by an inadequate environmental review process and an overall lack of transparency. In addition, the agency's method of evaluating noise impacts and disclosing them to affected communities appears to be severely flawed. Moreover, opponents note that the FAA has flatly rejected a solution that would reduce noise over Point Reyes by directing plane flights over the Pacific Ocean.

The FAA steadfastly maintains that its new flight system, which is strongly backed by and was developed in conjunction with the airline industry, is causing "no significant impacts" to the region — despite the overwhelming evidence supporting the opposite conclusion. This evidence includes extensive testimony and detailed analyses by National Park Service experts, who had initially hoped that FAA's NorCal project would help reduce jet noise over sensitive habitats in federally protected parks.

The NPS research shows that in some park areas — notably over the high-quality habitat of Point Reyes — the noise is getting worse. In addition, the FAA's unwillingness to work with the NPS, which is supposed to be its partner in the federal government, sheds light on the aviation administration's longstanding habit of largely ignoring its critics, even when there is compelling data suggesting that its practices are causing serious environmental problems.