Fly-by tourism may be throttled at Grand Canyon

  • A helicopter flies above the south entrance to Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon Trust

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Who speaks for the Colorado Plateau?

Although Congress passed legislation in 1987 limiting where tourist-toting planes and helicopters could go over Grand Canyon National Park, the number of flights has nearly doubled. The National Park Service says noise pervades almost every nook and cranny of the park, even though 44 percent of it is off-limits to aircraft.

"The law has not substantially succeeded in restoring quiet," says park superintendent Boyd Evison. "They (the air-tour operators) know that, too."

Where the law failed, Evison hopes new regulations may succeed. "I believe we can substantially improve our control of noise without destroying people's livelihoods," says Evison.

Representatives of the booming air-tour industry see the situation differently. At a three-day workshop in March, they cited public opinion polls that said most people don't mind the noise. Roger Clark, who attended the meetings on behalf of the Grand Canyon Trust, says, "They argued that what should be allowed in national parks should be a popularity contest."

But the Park Service's Evison says he made it clear that new regulations were on the way. "I certainly can understand their viewpoint, but we're not just trying to find a middle ground," says Evison. "We're trying to do what's right."

While the specifics of the new rules are still unknown, some observers say they expect them to include an enlargement of noise-free areas in the park, restrictions on the daily number of flights, and a package of incentives for tour operators using quieter craft or carrying more people per trip. These measures have all been advocated by a coalition of environmental groups.

The push to implement tougher regulations coincides with a nationwide initiative announced March 15 to control overflights at all national parks. Environmentalists, who contend that natural quiet is as important a park resource as wildlife or scenery, praise this move by the Park Service and Federal Aviation Administration.

"We have tough rules that prohibit low-flying aircraft over the White House and the Hollywood Bowl," says Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "It's ludicrous to allow hundreds of flights to buzz parks like the Grand Canyon day in and day out."

Air-tour operators at the Grand Canyon are feeling the sting of another new policy announced last month by the Park Service. Companies that fly tourists over the park must now pay a $25 "entrance fee" for every flight. With 187,000 flights in and out of Grand Canyon Airport on the park's south rim annually, the fee will generate a sizeable chunk of money.

But environmentalists criticize the Park Service for delaying the fee's implementation. Congress authorized the fee last August and scheduled it to take effect last Oct. 1. The loss in revenue is some $300,000 over the past five months.

For more information, contact Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023 (602/638-7888).

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