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Grand Cacophony National Park?

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Emily Guerin | Jul 12, 2012 06:00 AM

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.

Grand Canyon helicopterThe 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.

Noel D Newnam
Noel D Newnam Subscriber
Jul 13, 2012 12:02 AM
Arizona has a stand your ground law. If I feel a helicopter is threatening me, can't I shoot it with a stinger? Just joking, but why not meet callousness with more of the same? I really believe the Republicans have sold their souls. (and some Democrats)
George Winters
George Winters Subscriber
Jul 13, 2012 11:07 AM
The park service has managed the back country permits in a way that lowers the number of overnight hiking permits and the party size in areas designated as more primitive. Unfortunately, air traffic noise carries most loudly into the quietest areas. Those of us who have been lucky enough to get a remote back country permit will be the most likely to notice the audible intrusion of the tourist air traffic. As much as I sincerely want everyone to have a chance to enjoy the Grand Canyon, when I have hiked a few days to enjoy some slightly more remote part of the Tonto Plateau, it has been very frustrating to hear an almost constant daylight drone of planes and helicopters. Also, the regular interstate commercial air traffic often seems to converge on paths over the canyon. The people flying will never realize how much disturbance they are contributing to a small number of people.

Perhaps the echo of noise reverberating distantly to unknown ears that is created by our collective air travel choices should be rephrased as a metaphor for the unseen future impact of our society's intensive energy and extractive resource activity.

I also readily admit that when I use the same petroleum highway to visit my haven of choice, I rarely think about the echo into the canyon of the future created by the chink-chink click at the gas pump. The noise that came to bother me in the quiet of Papago Canyon was really an echo of my own mode of travel.
Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Jul 19, 2012 10:51 AM
I was back country packing in the GC in 2010 and subject to relentless fixed wing overflights echoing off the canyon walls. The topography amplified the sound of this aircraft and the result was a ridiculous intrusion of noise into a very remote wilderness area. Senator McCain is a little too "flexible" in the presence of money to be able to protect the interests of his own constituency, most politicians are. Our electoral system is so prone to corruption we get negative outcomes for most people most of the time. When in the hell do we get the corrupting influence of money out of our electoral system?
Joan Bartz
Joan Bartz Subscriber
Jul 20, 2012 09:48 AM
I am weary of politicians who "gut" the rules and regulations intended to protect human health and the environment. They all seem to play the jobs/economy card, when in fact the deterioration of the environment leads to situations which cost the taxpayer money and citizens their health (and therefore money). Yes, even noise can negatively impact human health and the environment. If you don't believe that - at least be concerned that campaign contributers can cause Senators and others to flip-flop!

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