Finding a Balance


   Well, that was the idea anyway, in a recent workshop facilitated by the NPS. Representatives from the air tour industry, environmental organizations, the NPS, the FAA, and numerous other initialed government agencies participated in the discussions designed to “find a balance” on the question of increasing air traffic over Grand Canyon. As the GCRG representative, I anticipated some lively conversation. For three solid days I got it.

   The focus of much discussion was the long-delayed report prepared by NPS to evaluate the effectiveness of the new flight rules in substantially restoring natural quiet in Grand Canyon. According to NPS conclusions from the data, although the rules imposed in 1988 have improved the situation parkwide, especially along the developed areas on the South and North Rims, they found that the restrictions have not been adequate in protecting natural quiet as a resource in its own right. They also concluded that “Substantial restoration of the natural quiet and experience of the park is not possible under current conditions.”

   Dramatic change is needed, and workshop participants were invited to be a part of the process. Superintendent Boyd Evison came on strong with the air tour industry in his openig speech but assured them that, although he is prepared to initiate change, air operations won’t be eliminated.

   A contingent of the air tour industry, the Air Access Coalition, was strongly critical of the data and of the NPS interpretation, labeling them “biased” and “prejudicial”. They presented their own study, contracted through acoustical analysts who ollected data in 1987 and again in 1993, mostly from points along the South rim. The data, they concluded, proved that natural quiet has been restored. The baseline for their study was 1987 sound levels, which were already deemed unacceptable; the baseline for the NPS report was natural quiet, which is what it’s all about. After a day and a half of relatively unproductive posturing, we finally got down to business.

   The NPS study designated “areas of concern”, points at which natural quiet was seriously compromised. These areas included Desert View, the Hermit Basin, Point Inperial, Point Sublime, and major sections of western Grand Canyon, among others. Workshop participants produced many suggestions to mitigate these impacts, ranging from closure of the two main flight corridors to offering federal tax benefits to companies which invest in quiet aircraft technology.

   Representatives from environmental groups suggested that focusing attention on areas where noise was already a problem was not enough, that preventative action needs to be initiated in particularly susceptable areas such as Marble Canyon. Hikers in Nankoweap Basin, an area not studied and therefore not considered an “area of concern”, are subjected to a constant drone of aircraft.

   The numerous suggestions will be included in the NPS report to Congress within the next month with recommendations for improvements to the flight rules.

   While all this is going on, the FAA and the NPS have joined hands in an effort to reduce impacts from overflights on national parks nationwide. In an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), the interagency working group determined that increased flight operations in national parks have “significantly diminished the natural park experience”. They hope to “form a comprehensive policy on preventing, minimizing, or eliminating impacts of aircraft overflights.”

   This is really important to Grand Canyon. Since the Overflights Act was passed by Congress in 1987, the Grand Canyon air tour industry has more than doubled and that trend is expected to continue. Already the number of tour flights exceeds 10,000 each month during peak season. Shifting the flight corridors around to affect fewer people on the ground hasn’t worked because it doesn’t address the problem: too much noise. Attempts at moving the sound around leaves the NPS like a dog chasing its tail; it will never get the job done. The growth needs to be curtailed and air tour visitation must be limited, as with every other form of visitation in the Park.

   Recent tour helicopter activity in Burnt Springs Canyon in direct violation of published altitude minimums may already have profoundly impacted a Heron rookery.

   This is also really important to every other National Park in the country. Currently Grand Canyon has the most stringent rules of any of our national parks regarding overflights. Other Parks, such as Canyonlands, are relatively unprotected. The FAA “requests” that pilots remain 2000 feet above ground level when overflying national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. However, many air tour operators are more than willing to ignore that request in favor of financial gain.

   John Ruhl, a helicopter tour operator from Moab told me, “I can fly one inch above the ground as long as I don’t hit nothing.” Ruhl hovers close to arches in the Moab area so his passengers can take pictures, he says, even though the sound pressure from helicopters are known to cause damage to such delicate structures. When I asked how close he flew to the arches, he smiled and said, “How close do you want?” Obviously with such cavalier attitudes towards our natural resources, some pilots need more than a mere “request” from the FAA.

   Studies indicate that aircraft can be associated with stress responses in a number of animals, including migratory birds. The Superintendent of Glacier National Park expressed concern that grizzly bears are being harassed by commercial air tour operators unaware of the potential adverse effects of flying too close to them. A comprehensive policy regulating air tours over all our national parks is long overdue.

   Send in your comments. Written comments on the rule making change will be accepted until June 16th, 1994. They should be mailed, in triplicate, to:

   Federal Aviation Administration
   Office of Chief Counsel
   Attention: Rules Docket (AGC-200), Docket No. 27643
   800 Independence Avenue, SW
   Washington, DC 20591

Jeri Ledbetter