Grand Cacophony National Park?

 

Peace and quiet can be hard to come by at the Grand Canyon. When I camped among the ponderosa pines just outside the park gates last summer, my nightly soundtrack was a chorus of Jeep-towing RVs, the baritone rumble of Harleys and Guns N’ Roses wafting from a nearby campsite. These sounds could be the background of any popular national park, but one noise in particular planted me firmly at the Grand Canyon: the drone of helicopters.

The National Park Service has long been working to balance the interests of hikers and rafters, who would prefer the park to be quiet, and air tour operators, who make their living winging tourists high above the crevasse. The struggle dates back to 1987, when Congress passed legislation calling for the NPS and the Federal Aviation Administration to seek “substantial restoration of the natural quiet and experience of the park.”

Current regulations mandate that half the park must be free of aircraft noise for at least 75 percent of the day. But in February 2011, the NPS released a draft environmental impact statement upping the percentage of the park that must be quiet to two-thirds. The draft plan also included a number of other recommendations designed to minimize overflight noise impacts. Last June, HCN reported on the proposal as part of a cover story on the political influence of developers and helicopter companies on the canyon. After accepting public comment, NPS was due to release its final EIS on the noise regulations this month.

But a miscellaneous section tacked onto the federal transportation bill at the last minute makes all the park's planning moot and strips the NPS of the ability to decide how noisy the Grand Canyon should be. The legislation was signed into law on July 6.

The change came after versions of the bill had passed both chambers of Congress, in a period called conference agreement, when members of the House and Senate hash out the differences between their versions of a bill. It's often a time where questionable language gets inserted into bills, since there's no more debate and legislators are eager to complete their work. As the bill went to conference, the Senate’s version had deferred regulation of aircraft noise to the NPS. The House version, though, which won the day, enforces the status quo on park noise regulations while also withdrawing the Park Service's authority to make its own rules.

In a statement, senators John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Republicans from Arizona, praised the law, saying it would preserve “hundreds of tourism jobs” and allow greater access to the park. “The stunning beauty of the Grand Canyon should be shared by everyone, not locked away for a small group of activists demanding absolute quiet, everywhere, at all hours,” they wrote.

But that opinion is new for McCain. According to the Center for Public Integrity, he was a vocal supporter of the 1987 law that required the NPS to limit aircraft noise in the park, arguing that the Grand Canyon “does not exist for anyone’s financial benefit.” However in recent years he’s switched his support to industry, trying twice to pass legislation that would prevent the NPS from further restricting noise levels in the park.

It’s hard not to wonder if campaign donations played a role in the senator’s flip-flop on flights. According to OpenSecrets.org, McCain received over $110,000 in his 2008 election bid from Grand Canyon helicopter mogul Elling Halvorson, who owns one of the canyon’s largest air tour companies, Papillon Airways. Halvorson and his wife have also given McCain over $70,000 since 1991, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission records.

The Department of the Interior says the law undermines the NPS’s public planning process and limits the agency’s ability to protect park resources by restricting noise levels based on best-available science. And Roger Clark, a former raft guide and program director at the Grand Canyon Trust, says current noise limits are unacceptable and disrupt the canyon experience. He’s hopeful the NPS will still release the final EIS, although a spokesman for the Department of the Interior said the agency is still reviewing the legislation and hasn’t announced what it will do going forward.

“The bottom line is, the air tour industry got what it wanted,” Clark said, “What we’ve got is what we’re stuck with.”

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy Flikr user Nevada Tourism Media Relations.