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,
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
"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 watchingand
listeningcarefully for them to act."
Sierra Club Press Release