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  Protecting Grand Canyon Quiet Affirmed by Court
  BQR ~ fall 1998

silence reigns everywhere. The sun comes up over the Painted Desert through a haze of spectrum colors but there is no sound, and it goes down over the Uinkaret Mountains in all the glory of crimson and purple, but the silence is not broken. The stillness seems like that of stellar space.

John C. Van Dyke, The Grand Canyon of the Colorado, 1920

 

   Government efforts to restore the natural quiet of the Grand Canyon by limiting noisy commercial air tours was supported by a federal court decision September 4, 1998. Conservation groups (Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks and Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Grand Canyon River Guides and Northern Arizona Audubon Society), which had filed suit against the Federal Aviation Administration in January of 1997 were disappointed that the court did not require the agency to limit flight numbers and restore natural quiet sooner than 2008, the FAA's promised goal.

   Congress enacted the National Parks Overflights Act in 1987, which required the FAA and the National Park Service to "substantially restore the natural quiet" of Grand Canyon National Park by creating no-fly zones and other restrictions on air tours, which then numbered close to 50,000.  The FAA still has not approved an air tour management plan which meets the "natural quiet" goal, despite several rulemaking attempts, but has promised to meet that goal by 2008.

   "We're glad to see the court uphold the need to restore natural quiet at the Grand Canyon, which is now inundated by 100,000 air tours a year," said Sharon Galbreath, Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter conservation chair. "But we wish the court had told the FAA to do more faster, because the longer we wait the more noisy flights there are." According to Tom Robinson of the Grand Canyon Trust, "the most significant aspect of the ruling was the Court upholding the government's right to preserve natural quiet as an important resource."

   The court stated that "the FAA can regulate aircraft noise in order to protect not only those who choose the well-worn path, but also those who prefer the road less-taken." The judges were harsh on the air tour industry, which had filed suit to prevent further restrictions on Grand Canyon overflights. The three-judge panel noted that the air tour coalition "misread the Federal Register," "misapprehends the agencies' definition [of natural quiet]," and "mischaracterized the Senator's [McCain's] position" (referring to statements made by Senator John McCain supporting passage of 1987 national parks overflight legislation). The court rejected two other arguments made by the air tour industry as "factually inaccurate."

   The court noted that the conservation groups' "frustration with the agency's slow and faltering pace is understandable," and "the FAA was tardy" and "undeniably slow." However, the judges said that "we will take the government at its word" now that the FAA is promising to issue new rules which will meet the goal of restoring the natural quiet at Grand Canyon by further limiting air tour noise within a "reasonable timetable."

   "The FAA has very clear marching orders to restore the natural quiet of the Grand Canyon," said Jeri Ledbetter, past president of GCRG, "and we'll be watching—and listening—carefully for them to act."

Sierra Club Press Release

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