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Know the West

New rules seek to cap canyon flights


GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Nearly 10 years ago, when Congress set a national goal to restore natural quiet here, surveys indicated that only 43 percent of the park was unaffected by aircraft noise. Now only 31 percent of the park is considered quiet, defined as free from aircraft noise at least 75 percent of the time.

What happened?

Although the 1987 regulations urged by Congress barred flights below the canyon rim and over almost half the park, the sheer number of trips has doubled in a decade. These days up to 15,000 tourists a month tour the canyon by air, nearly 1 million people a year. The annual business generated by some 40 air-tour operators is pegged at more than $200 million.

Rob Arnberger, Grand Canyon superintendent since 1994, says the problem is divided missions: "The FAA promotes commercial aviation and we protect resources ... natural quiet is a resource." Arnberger says what should be a partnership is hindered by the aviation agency's insistence on dominance. "Working with them is worse than having a root canal. The situation calls for action."

President Clinton seemed to agree, and on Earth Day last April he ordered new regulations "to reduce noise immediately." He directed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to write tougher rules to protect Grand Canyon's quiet.

After behind-the-scenes squabbling between Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Federico Peûa reportedly required the intervention of Vice President Al Gore and even President Clinton, the proposed rules emerged July 26. The Arizona Republic characterized them as "strong, unambiguous and sensible."

They increase flight-free zones from 45 percent of the park to 87 percent, although noise from the planes will spread well beyond the flight-free zones; ban commercial sightseeing flights from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. during the summer and 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. during winter; and set a two-year cap on the number of flights at the level established during the period Aug. 1, 1995 to July 31, 1996.

But if the Clinton team expected plaudits, they were in for disappointment. Though conservation groups were pleased, air-tour operators were not: "Clinton aviation plan spells air disaster in Grand Canyon," headlined a press release from their trade group.

Charged Jim Petty, president of Air Vegas: "This proposal is absolute nonsense. Aircraft leave no footprints, dump no trash, drop no burning cigarettes, require no paved roads, create no traffic jams ... We simply fly over and leave."

Rob Smith, Southwest representative for the Sierra Club, criticized the proposals for sounding better than they were. "While the cap is welcome, it will be set at flight levels twice what they were when Congress decided there was too much aircraft noise in 1987," he said.

Other criticisms came from Julie Galton Gale of Grand Canyon Trust, who pointed out that flight-free zones were extended to an area that is mostly flight-free already. "The proposed rule does not address the core issue that there is too much noise in the park," Gale added. "It concentrates the noise in smaller areas of the park that will become sacrifice zones."

Even if the rule is implemented in its present form after 60 days of public review and comment, it is only the start, points out Arnberger: "Natural quiet will be restored to 38 percent of the park vs. 31 percent today, a far cry from the Park Service goal of 64 percent by 2015. There has got to be a better process created to attain that goal than this one. We will never get there with the system we have."

Sixty years ago, Zane Grey wrote of Grand Canyon that "one feature of this ever-varying spectacle never changes - its eternal silence."

Good writer. Lousy prophet.

The FAA will accept public comment electronically on or before Sept. 30, 1996 at [email protected] Docket Number 28537, or by mail to FAA Office of Chief Counsel, Attention Rules Docket (AGC 200), Docket 28537, 800 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. 20591. Letters must be sent in triplicate.

Jim Bishop writes frequently about the Grand Canyon from Sedona, Arizona.