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The Snoqualmie Tribe wants helicopter tours to stop flying over sacred waterfall

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Snoqualmie Indian tribe in Washington state wants helicopter tourists to stay away from its sacred site, a 268-foot waterfall, and they've asked the federal government to step in. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Diana Opong reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATERFALL FLOWING)

DIANA OPONG, BYLINE: You can hear the Snoqualmie Falls before you see them. As you get closer, mist feels like a light rain. The Snoqualmie say the mist carries prayers to their ancestors.

MCKENNA SWEET DORMAN: For our people, this is our center. We are still Sdukwalbixw (ph). We are the Transformer's people. This is our most sacred site.

OPONG: Tribal member McKenna Sweet Dorman works for the tribe doing government affairs and says the falls are a place for the Snoqualmie to practice their beliefs. It's a sacred site that also has hiking trails, a resort spa and two restaurants. And there's an apiary where honey is sourced for a Honey from Heaven service. It's drizzled on the biscuits to represent the falls itself.

DORMAN: I think that people can easily see the significance of this place, whether or not they understand the significance to a Snoqualmie tribal member.

OPONG: The falls are about 30 miles east of Seattle in the city of Snoqualmie. Tourists love the falls so much they want to see it from the air, and they'll pay upwards of $200 per person to do it. But the tribe says low-flying helicopter tours, planes and drones are noisy and disrupt the peace. Tribal Council member Christopher Castleberry says the tribe's concerns are about respect for the land and its people.

CHRISTOPHER CASTLEBERRY: I think the goal is government intervention, to be able to hear our concerns and have that communication to find a compromise.

OPONG: Right now, there are no air regulations above the falls, and the tribe wants that to change, both for the tribe and guests. Tyson Horner of Monroe, Wash., was recently visiting the falls with his family.

TYSON HORNER: The natural beauty is kind of spoiled by man's technology, so as much as we can keep it the way it was, the better it would be.

OPONG: The resort and much of the surrounding land has been owned by the tribe since 2019. Rob Roy Smith, the tribe's legal counsel, says they've tried for years to resolve the flight disruptions on their own, even sending certified letters.

ROB ROY SMITH: The tribe reached out to those three helicopter companies, letting them know that operating their helicopters at low altitudes and without the tribe's permission was disrespectful and distracting.

OPONG: Last year, the tribe contacted the Federal Aviation Administration and asked them to monitor air traffic and flight altitudes. Low flying is characterized as 500 feet or less, but helicopters have no minimum in unregulated airspace. The FAA declined to be interviewed for this story but in a statement says it's aware of the concerns and working with all parties to consider available options.

SARA ANDERSEN: I was just completely heartbroken.

OPONG: Sara Andersen of Atomic Helicopters in Seattle says she heard from the FAA last year but not the tribe. In fact, she says it wasn't until December when she began to receive angry emails from the public and was contacted by the media that she understood what was going on.

ANDERSEN: No one stopped by the office - nothing. So to hear this news about how we were being disrespectful, it's just such a blow.

OPONG: Andersen says Atomic Helicopters has stopped offering tours of the falls out of respect for the tribe. The two other helicopter companies in question did not respond to a request for an interview.

Earlier this week, the Snoqualmie Indian tribe met with representatives from the FAA, U.S. Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe was told it may take three to five years to set new flight regulations over the falls. For NPR News, I'm Diana Opong at Snoqualmie Falls in Washington state.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.