On a recent visit to Las Vegas, Nev., I strolled along the Strip, checking out the extravagant casino hotels and ogling tourists from around the world who had come to gamble and be entertained. Popular shows included hypnotist magicians, Cirque du Soleil's spinning acrobats, and four tuxedoed white Australians singing classic Motown hits.
Vegas is always a hoot. But I was amazed by the many hucksters selling Grand Canyon National Park air tours. Storefronts along the Strip have garish signs promoting the flights; there are fliers and ads everywhere. The air-tour companies will even send a limo to your hotel to whisk you to a nearby airport, where they'll load you onto a helicopter or plane heading to the canyon.
I know the thrill. About 25 years ago, I bought a helicopter flight in Tusayan, Ariz., a Grand Canyon gateway town. I'll never forget the rush as the helicopter flew toward the rim and suddenly the ground dropped and the spectacular abyss opened up all around us.
I took that flight because I was writing about how aircraft noise disturbs hikers and other canyon visitors who want peace and quiet. John Dougherty's cover story for this issue of HCN explores how the controversy has evolved since then. The National Park Service has finally released a draft environmental impact statement, making recommendations for reducing the noise and conflicts. The agency is accepting public comments until June 20.
The air tours are popular, and the industry has the backing of powerful Western senators. The Vegas hotel owners probably also want the air tours to continue; they attract more customers who then spend more nights on the Strip.
In Tusayan, the leading air-tour operator and some Italian developers are manipulating local politics to encourage the construction of major new hotels and other commercial projects. All this would impact the national park in many ways.
I have mixed feelings about the canyon flights. They haul a lot of people over the canyon and probably help build support for its general protection. But I've also experienced the conflicts. On our honeymoon 27 years ago, my wife and I backpacked from the North Rim, making a tough hike down to Deer Creek Falls and along the Colorado River and up Tapeats Creek, past Thunder River, a huge spring that roars from the rock wall. I've also taken an oar-powered raft trip through the canyon, feeling the natural touch of water, stone and sand. On both of those trips, the aircraft noise was a noticeable intrusion at times.
The demand for air tours is understandable. But the flight patterns should be adjusted to restore more of the natural quiet. The Grand Canyon is not just another Vegas sideshow.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.