Speak up for a quiet Grand Canyon

  • Line drawing of Grand Canyon

 

On my first visit to the Grand Canyon 45 years ago, I was overwhelmed by its magnificent silence, tranquility and timelessness. That serenity is hard to find today. It's destroyed by the relentless drone of planes and helicopters. A thousand flights a day, 100 flights an hour rain noise down on the canyon. At best, it's like a lawnmower buzzing somewhere down the street day after day; at worst, it's a chainsaw roaring next door.

Noise pollution from aircraft is the most pervasive environmental problem in the park.

The landmark National Parks Overflights Act of 1987 was supposed to fix this mess. The law requires the National Park Service to develop, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to enforce, "flight-free zones' that "provide for substantial restoration of the natural quiet" in the park. But a five-year, $4 million Park Service study concluded that current regulations haven't done the job.

Some areas are quieter, but most of the canyon is noisier than ever as the number of flights has doubled. In the canyon's astonishing acoustics you can hear small aircraft up to 16 miles away; jets even farther. Virtually none of park is free of aircraft noise.

Most of the overflights are commercial air tours - the only activity in national parks not controlled by the Park Service. Grand Canyon has become the "air tour capital of the world." Last year, 31 companies grossed $116 million, eight times the park budget. About 90 percent of the customers are foreign tourists, with most on heavily promoted trips out of Las Vegas. It's a buccaneer business, just the sort of unbridled commercialism that national parks were created to prevent.

Ironically, were it not for aircraft, Grand Canyon would be one of our least spoiled national parks. In most of its 87 backcountry zones, the Park Service permits only one or two groups of people at a time to ensure solitude. Away from the Colorado River and developed areas, aircraft are usually the only human impact.

After many years of delay, the FAA and Interior Department have now proposed new rules that would reduce noise in three outlying areas: Kanab-Toroweap, the Fossil Corridor, and Marble Gorge (HCN, 9/2/96). But the rules would exacerbate problems in the eastern heart of the canyon. A realignment of the Dragon Corridor, a heavily trafficked air tour route near Hermit's Rest, would eliminate the only quiet viewpoint on the south rim. Roughly half of the park's trails, springs, permanent streams, forests, and prime rim viewpoints would suffer heavy noise impacts. And the plan would continue to give a competitive edge to helicopters, at the expense of more responsible operators who have invested in quieter aircraft. The FAA rejected Park Service recommendations to mandate quieter aircraft and close the Dragon Corridor.

The Park Service calculates that the new plan would free only 14 percent of the park from noise. The FAA's own Environmental Assessment says the rules would bring "no appreciable change in noise levels' in the eastern canyon.

Natural quiet would not be restored anywhere because the "flight-free zones' aren't really flight free. Commercial jets, private planes, and military aircraft flying above 14,500 feet would remain unrestricted. The Park Service found that jet noise is more of a problem than air tours in a third of the sites it monitored. You can often hear two or three jetliners at once, their sharp whine echoing off the cliffs. The FAA says adjusting the jet routes is "easy to do" and wouldn't cost anyone a penny, but park officials haven't pushed the idea.

For their part, air tour operators oppose any new rules, claiming they would "deny the right to see the canyon."

That's nonsense. No one is talking about banning tour flights. The issue is how much of the canyon should be given over to air tours, and which parts. Environmental groups, banded together as the Quiet Canyon Coalition, are resigned that a large fraction of the park will remain a "sacrifice area" for tourists who want to see the canyon in 15 minutes at 100 miles an hour. But they are unwilling to give up the heart of the park.

The air tour industry also contends that "only elitist backpackers complain about the noise," and that "flying is the only way handicapped and elderly can see the canyon." More nonsense. You can see more of the Grand Canyon with less physical effort than just about any other large national park. There are auto-accessible viewpoints the length of both rims. Comfortable, gourmet-meal float trips provide access to the interior; many river concessionaires cater to the handicapped and elderly.

Air tour operators point out that most of the park's 5 million annual visitors aren't much annoyed by aircraft. True enough. Most visitors spend only a few minutes at publicized overlooks (avoided by air tours), where the roar of tour buses usually drowns out distant aircraft sounds. But in the backcountry- the 95 percent of the park away from the gift shops and elbow-to-elbow crowds - visitor surveys show that the vast majority of people do hear aircraft and are bothered by the noise.

This plan isn't all it should be. But for the first time in 20 years the Park Service has taken a strong stand in favor of restoring quiet. Last year, 34,000 form letters from tour company patrons flooded the FAA. Now there's a chance to be heard again: Real letters from real people mean a lot.

The FAA is accepting public comment on the rules until Sept. 30. Comments must be marked "Docket No. 28537" and either mailed in triplicate to Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Chief Counsel, Attention: Rules Docket (AGC-200), Docket 28537, 800 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20591 or sent by e-mail to the following Internet address: [email protected]

Dennis Brownridge teaches high school in Arizona and has been visiting the Grand Canyon since 1951.

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