t was a bumpy ride at the August 30th hearing on overflights in Flagstaff. A panel of officials from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Park Service (NPS) listened to public comments regarding air tours over Grand Canyon. The meeting was overwhelmed by speakers with economic interests in the air tour industry. A parade of public officials from Nevada praised the huge amount of money—40% of it foreign—that the industry generates. The procession continued with a long string of pilots who spoke of jobs, family, and the American Way, describing tear-stained faces of elderly and disabled people whose air tour was undoubtedly the high point of their lives. And a handful of elitist, rich, environmental extremists on the ground want to deny them that experience... and on and on.
The air tour operators themselves were much more low key, and have made an abrupt change in tactics from previous meetings. Praising the flight restrictions which went into effect in 1987, they claimed that now the problem is solved; natural quiet has been restored to Grand Canyon. Several operators were so pleased with the current restrictions, you’d think they wrote the rules themselves. They made much of the limited number of complaints the NPS received last year from park visitors. The problem is obviously solved and we can all go home now.
Few turned out in defense of natural quiet in Grand Canyon. Senator John McCain made some forceful opening remarks. Bob Melville said a few words; a handful of others gave it a try. Tom Martin was the last speaker, and eloquently said all the right things. Perhaps everybody else is just tired of battling big money and bureaucracy; God knows I am.
Maybe part of the reason there are so few letters to the NPS about noise is that people have grown accustomed to its constant presence. Many have never experienced natural quiet—absolutely no man-made sound for extended periods of time. They don’t complain because they don’t expect to find it. It is therefore all the more vital to make that experience available, to see to it that there are places one can go to experience only natural sound.
The NPS/FAA panel is hoping to come to a decision and have a plan by the end of the year; that probably means maybe sometime next year. The time for public input has passed, although a letter to the NPS couldn’t hurt. Superintendent Arnberger is on the panel. Box 129, Grand Canyon AZ, 86023.
Testimony of Jeri Ledbetter at the Overflights Hearing
There were minor spontaneous changes due to abject terror induced by speaking before a hostile crowd
In a world that is so oppressed by the clamor of technology, there are few sanctuaries. Only a tiny fraction of the earth’s surface is set aside for wilderness values. Those small remnants of wilderness, although protected on the ground, are increasingly subjected to an onslaught of mechanized sound from the air. Areas free from manmade noise are truly our most endangered habitats.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this issue has been the apparent need to constantly revisit and defend the basic concept of natural quiet and what it means. Natural Quiet is not a reduction of manmade noise, but the complete absence of it for extended periods of time.
By that definition, the average American has never experienced natural quiet, and, sadly, probably never will. We come to accept unrelenting noise as an inevitable part of our everyday lives in a mechanized world. The casual visitor to the South Rim of the Canyon doesn’t go there with the expectation of experiencing natural quiet, nor is he likely to find it.
And, frankly, the casual visitor isn’t the one we’re concerned about, because he has already been deceived into believing that he can experience Grand Canyon in a matter of hours. He might look out over the Canyon as he would a movie, with one eye on his watch, and then speed away. He never allows the Canyon to touch him, nor does he make any spiritual connection. And if a couple of helicopters flew over, perhaps he doesn’t even notice, because he has forgotten how to listen.
The visitor who truly connects with the Canyon, who touches it, is one who allows Grand Canyon the time it deserves. He makes a great effort to get away from the noisy South Rim to reflect on the grandeur, the dimension. The tranquillity he experiences is a tonic in an age where a purely natural environment is increasingly difficult to find. In those serene moments when there is no manmade sound, the silence becomes a presence; the impact is profound. This Grand Canyon experience can be shattered by the intrusion a handful of people in a helicopter taking what is a mere joyride in comparison. This experience represents only a small fraction of the total visitation, but our national parks have never been, nor should they be, a numbers game.
It is obvious that there is tremendous demand for Grand Canyon overflights. There is, in fact, great demand for every form of visitation. Unquestionably, exploitation is lucrative. But the fact that demand exists does not mean that it must be met. In our nation’s parks, economic issues must take a back seat.
Mules carry only a limited number of people into the Canyon each year, and for good reason. If there were not such a limit, the trails would become impassable to hikers. The waiting list for a private river permit is nearly 10 years. If commercial river use were unrestricted, we would no doubt have bumper-to-bumper traffic with one-day jet boat tours. Demand for backcountry access is such that hikers must apply for permits months in advance.
The Park Service set limits for these uses, in spite of demand, in spite of how much money there is to be made. The goal is protection of both the visitor experience and the resource. No one form of visitation is allowed to become so oppressive as to dominate the others. None, that is, except air tours.
Air tours affect the resource of natural quiet as well as the visitor experience. Since 1987 the industry has more than doubled, all the while marketing so vigorously that they have artificially created demand that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Unless this is stopped, they will continue to market, expand and exploit the Grand Canyon until there is no respite from the noise.
Regarding the questions the FAA presented:
I must point out that the aircraft which is being referred to as “quiet technology” isn’t all that quiet. The routes in Western Grand Canyon and Marble Canyon are so low that even Twin Otters are really loud. We should instead refer to it as “not-as-loud-as-it could-be technology.” Or perhaps “less invasive technology.” If the number of flights continues to climb, even the use of this less invasive aircraft would leave little sanctuary from manmade noise in Grand Canyon.
The air tour industry should be able to convert to less invasive technology and still remain viable. Some operators did so years ago, with no apparent detriment to their businesses. Access to Grand Canyon airspace is a huge incentive, and should be sufficient to persuade the remainder of tour operators to convert to quieter aircraft. This issue is not new, nor will it go away until the situation is improved. Further restrictions should come as no surprise to air tour operators. Some have read the writing on the wall, been proactive, and made efforts to limit their impacts; others have not.
Helicopters fly lower and louder than fixed wing aircraft, and the tours are more expensive. In fact, the rate a passenger pays for a tour is directly proportional to the amount of noise it generates. Because they fly lower routes, if the technology doesn’t exist to meet or exceed noise standards for quiet fixed wing, there should be no helicopters in Grand Canyon.
Growth should not be “managed”; it should be stopped. No new businesses should be allowed to start up unless they purchase a current operation. This is not unprecedented, as most park concessions are similarly limited. In 1972 the NPS had the foresight to realize that growth of river use had to be curtailed in order to protect the visitor experience of river travelers as well as hikers. No new companies would be allowed permits and current concessionaires were allowed no growth. River outfitters screamed bloody murder, yet since that time their businesses have become veritable gold mines.
Similarly, air tour operators insisted that flight restrictions established in 1987 would mean the death of the industry; to the contrary, business has boomed. Again there are some very loud voices claiming that further restrictions will “eviscerate the industry”; there is no reason to think that would be the case.
Raising the ceiling to meet the floor of Class A airspace would add further protection over flight free zones. There should be no safety concerns; aircraft that can’t achieve 18,000 feet can circumvent the airspace or go through a corridor. Flights above 18,000 feet are under strict control by the FAA, and we would like to see them divert traffic out of that airspace as much as possible. Requests from commercial jets to overfly Grand Canyon should be denied.
Should the air tour industry be regulated differently? Apparently so. The FAA’s fundamental principle of promoting aviation is at odds with the goal of restoration of natural quiet. When the FAA was directed by Congress to report on the carrying capacity of the airspace to ensure aviation safety and to substantially restore natural quiet, their conclusion was 3.5 million flights a year, about 25 times the 1993 levels. I guess they forgot about natural quiet being a goal. Obviously, the FAA should focus on safety and allow the NPS to make judgments on resource management; that’s what each of these agencies do best.
The NPS has done exhaustive research and made their recommendations. Although there are some obvious weaknesses, their suggestions are a good place to start and they are the absolute minimum that should be adopted. If the proposals can be applied safely, the FAA should feel obliged to do so immediately, as a package deal. Following anything less than all of the recommendations will solve nothing.
Even so, this can’t be the end of this issue. The key to making the NPS recommendations work is the adaptive management program which relies on “trigger levels.” This needs to be a well defined process. When the trigger levels are met, the FAA must take immediate action; the process shouldn’t drag on, and we shouldn’t have to go into battle for each adjustment. This is the only hope for Marble Canyon and Native American land not becoming sacrifice zones. We should not rely so heavily on technology that is still quite loud; for any of these actions to work effectively, there must be use limits.
Of all the ways we can show respect to someone, a moment of silence is the most profound and significant. Grand Canyon deserves more respect.