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 Air Tours Encroach Upon Refuge of Canyon
  BQR ~ Fall 1999

n a beach of the Colorado River or along a trail deep inside the Grand Canyon, I've been rousted from my solitude by that dang noise.
It's not exactly like a fleet of Huey choppers, their rotor blades thumping in unison like that memorable scene from Apocalypse Now, but you get the picture.
But, their intrusiveness is as appreciated as a scorpion sting.
They annoy when you only want to be left alone, when the only sights and sounds you want are those of Mother Nature: the changing hues of canyon walls; zephyrs rolling through an inner canyon; falling water over rocks; the roar of the river; a boulder tumbling down a slope; birds chirping at Indian Garden and condors soaring high above. Even a pesky fly is tolerable, far preferable to a noisy machine made by man.
Canyon sounds are distinctive. Decibel levels don't matter. I find a thunder and lightning show at the Grand Canyon, or rivulets of water cascading over canyon rims after a downpour, awe inspiring.
These are sights and sounds to behold.
Not so the sights and sounds of droning aircraft.
They infringe upon your privacy.
They ruin your park experience.
They turn a peaceful and special moment into something quite forgettable, like a day stuck at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
That said, planes do have a place in the airspace over the Grand Canyon, but not as much as the lucrative air tour industry would like.
It wants to be rewarded for making investments in quiet technology, as in the lifting of flight caps and curfews and getting the OK to fly in new corridors.
It says it needs these incentives because new technology is expensive, and it wants to be sure that their investment will not drive them into bankruptcy.
I've heard this before. In the mid-1980s a rash of accidents inside the Grand Canyon sparked a ban on below-the-rim flights and the creation of flight-free zones. In passing the Overflights Act of 1987, Congress agreed that it was good public policy to preserve park values, but the industry said restrictions would drive them out of business.
They were wrong then because the industry has prospered. The number of flights has doubled, and, with it, the endless quest for the "substantial restoration of natural quiet” seems more and more difficult to achieve.
It surely will be if the industry gets the incentives that it covets, incentives that Sen. John McCain,
R-Ariz., seems intent on providing.
His amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill has infuriated environmental groups, Indian tribes in the Canyon and the National Park Service. They can't understand why the man who led the fight to impose overflight restrictions would sponsor an amendment that could take Grand Canyon National Park back to the wild days of no caps and no curfews and unlimited flight corridors.
Says Rob Smith of the Sierra Club, “Grand Canyon is the one thing that John McCain points to with pride on an otherwise slim environmental record.”
But there the amendment is, in black and white. It gives the FAA nine months to “designate reasonably achievable requirements” for quiet technology. But if it can't—and this is the bewildering part—then all planes are deemed quiet and free to fly the Canyon at will.
“It boggles the imagination,” says Rob Arnberger, superintendent at Grand Canyon National Park, who fears this “could set us back to before the Overflights Act was enacted.” He adds, “There is no such thing as a quiet aircraft unless it's a flying saucer from outer space.”
He's right. Planes of any feather are noisy.
Why can't the air tour industry make the investment to quieter planes on its own? Why can't it do the right thing and be a willing player in the quest for natural quiet? Why can't it accept limits like all other commercial ventures that use this grand resource—from river runners to campsites and backcountry use?
Sure, they might have to raise fees, but so what?
The park's values are compromised as is, and further degradation ought to be vigorously resisted.


Joel Nilsson


The Arizona Republic, October 14,1999
Used with permission.
Permission does not imply endorsement.Write your Senators and Congressmen today
if you feel strongly about this issue.
Also write to:
Sen. John McCain
241 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

 
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