Canyonlands, Arches are invaded from above

  • Helicopter and bikers cartoon

    Jim Stiles

The slickrock canyons near Moab, Utah, have already been discovered by four-wheel-drivers and mountain bikers, but now tourists are discovering mesas and redrock bluffs from the air, primarily by helicopter.

Last year, two helicopter companies hung out their shingles in Moab and began giving expensive bird's-eye-view tours of Arches and Canyonlands national parks, as well as equally breathtaking Bureau of Land Management lands adjacent to the parks.

Helicopter customers enjoy the flights; many people on the ground do not. The reverberating noise of helicopters makes finding quiet and solitude increasingly difficult.

"Around here in Moab," says Scott Groene, "we all learn where we can go to escape jeeps, mountain bikes and motorcycles. We even know how to get away from other hikers. But you can't get away from those damn helicopters."

Just ask a quartet of hikers who were sunbathing nude one day last summer in the Behind The Rocks area, west of town. They heard the unmistakable "WHOP, WHOP, WHOP" of a whirlybird and within moments, the chopper hovered above the nude sunbathers. A passenger in the aircraft began shooting photographs.

This aerial invasion of privacy, however, was nothing compared to what happened to climber David Whidden.

Whidden and a friend were rappelling down a 1,000-foot cliff in Castle Valley, northeast of Moab, when they were circled by a helicopter that hovered above him so the tourists inside could take pictures.

"They came so close that the air produced by the propellers was blowing us around on our ropes," Whidden says. The force of the prop wash slammed him and his partner against the cliff. "It was a hyper-stupid situation they put us in."

Jose Knighton, who manages the Back of Beyond Bookstore in Moab, was hiking near Gemini Bridges just outside Canyonlands when a helicopter swooped up the gorge.

"I was completely befuddled by the assault of the helicopter noise. But as the noise is going on, there is a rattlesnake at my feet rattling ferociously," Knighton says. "I wasn't even aware it was there until the helicopter was gone."

Groene, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, is helping lead a fight to restrict helicopter flights around Moab. That effort includes a new grass-roots group called "Citizens For a Heli-Free Moab."

Citizens have already persuaded the Grand County Council to put a moratorium on any new helicopter companies until the controversy over where and how overflights will be conducted is settled.

The ideal goal, says Lu Warner, coordinator of the citizens' group, is to eliminate helicopters over national parks and other popular recreational areas.

Helicopter touring "is not a vital part of the community," Warner says. "People don't come here to ride helicopters."

But John Rhul, owner of Arches Helicopters, disagrees.

"Aircraft tours are becoming bigger and bigger every day," he says. Besides the two helicopter tour companies in Moab, there are five small airplane tour companies. "And I'm sure that as Moab gets bigger, you're going to have some airline companies coming in for scenic overflights," Rhul says.

Last year, Rhul had more than 1,000 customers. The flights start at $90 for a 12-minute ride or $535 per hour.

Rhul's also became the first helicopter company in Utah to provide "heli-assisted mountain-biking," in which he drops off mountain bikers and their bikes in remote areas such as Wilson Mesa on school trust lands.

Asked about possible restrictions on his business, Rhul gets indignant. Helicopters, he says, are the only way for many people to see the canyon country.

"The majority of the people that rode on my helicopter were older people who do not have access to the parks," Rhul says. "They either don't have the equipment or are of an age where they're barely able to move. With the new restrictions coming into the parks, it seems to me the only access is going to be by aircraft for a lot of these people."

The National Park Service is not keen on aircraft overflights. While the superintendents of Arches and Canyonlands don't encourage aircraft overflights, there's little they can do to stop them because the Federal Aviation Administration controls airspace.

"We have no air force, we have no anti-aircraft guns and we have no authority," says Walt Dabney, Canyonlands superintendent.

The Park Service can only prohibit landings, such as the one that occurred in June in the Chessler Park area of Canyonlands. A plastic surgeon from California landed his helicopter so that he could go to the bathroom. Park rangers, acting on tips from hikers, cited the doctor and fined him $100.

So far, the FAA has been unwilling to promulgate rules prohibiting flights over parks, says Groene. So the citizens plan to lobby Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Congress to enact legislation that would prohibit or restrict flights over sensitive areas on the Colorado Plateau.

"It's one of the quality-of-life concerns we have down here," Groene says. "If (the helicopter situation) gets any worse, Moab is going to be a crummy place to live."

Brent Israelsen works for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah. For more information on helicopters in Utah's canyon country, contact Citizens For a Heli-Free Moab, 801/259-8732; the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801/259-6440; or Arches Helicopters, 801/259-4637.

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