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Know the West

It will be noise as usual in Grand Canyon


You would never know it from the glowing news reports, but the Federal Aviation Administration has scuttled most of its plans for restricting aircraft overflights in Grand Canyon National Park.

Three of the four new "flight-free zones' the agency proposed in July (HCN, 9/16/96) have been effectively deleted in new rules released Dec. 31. Marble Canyon, Havasu-Toroweap, and the Sanup Plateau will remain open to low-altitude flights, as will most of the Canyon.

Only the lightly used Fossil Canyon Corridor will be closed as planned, an action the FAA says will cause "zero revenue loss' for air tour operators. Minor route changes will reduce noise in Marble Gorge.

But the FAA plan drops the idea of capping the number of air tour flights at their current level. And the announced moratorium on buying new aircraft will not apply if the aircraft meet certain noise emission standards.

Some curfews were imposed by the agency, but for 80 percent of the flights over the Canyon, which originate in Las Vegas, there are no time restrictions. Tours from the town of Tusayan will be limited to 8 a.m.-6 p.m. in the summer and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. in the winter. One Tusayan operator says that might cut back a couple of flights on summer evenings, but otherwise have no effect.

"We're quite encouraged," says Robert Graff, a spokesman for Las Vegas-based Scenic Airlines, the largest air tour company flying the park. "These are areas we can live with."

A major goal of the FAA has been to ensure the profitability and continued growth of the Canyon's air tour industry, which has doubled over the last decade.

The proposed changes will allow low-altitude flights over about 210 miles of the Canyon, or 75 percent of its 277 mile length.

Although a New York Times report Jan. 5 called the FAA plan "a blow struck for serenity," air tour noise will continue to impact most of the park's trails and rim viewpoints. Changes in tour directions will increase flights on the busy Dragon Corridor, a major area of contention for backcountry users.

At the urging of tour operators, the Dragon Corridor will be moved closer to the park's two pre-eminent backcountry viewpoints, Point Sublime on the North Rim and Havasupai Point on the South Rim. The plan gives a competitive boost to Tusayan-based helicopter tours by allowing them to fly much shorter, lower routes than the cheaper-to-operate fixed wing tours.

The National Parks Overflights Act of 1987 requires the establishment of flight-free zones to restore natural quiet and render aircraft inaudible over some substantial (though unspecified) area of the park.

However, the National Park Service, which opposed the law, declared a policy in 1994 that half of the 1,900-square-mile park may have unlimited aircraft noise and the other half may be noisy for one out of every four minutes, or up to three hours of noise during the day. The FAA says its new rules satisfy that policy, which would allow some areas of the park to become noisier than they are now.

Natural quiet will not be restored to any of the park, since there is no restriction on the heavy jet and general aviation traffic above 14,500 feet.

Under pressure from all quarters - particularly the law's author, Arizona Sen. John McCain, R, - the FAA has proposed noise standards for tour aircraft. But the decibel limits, which would not take full effect for 12 years, could allow aircraft several times louder than the quietest planes already in use. At Scenic Airlines, Graff says, nearly all 56 planes in his fleet would meet the new standards. According to the Park Service, aircraft meeting the standards are audible as much as eight miles away.

Angry environmental groups, who have fought for a quieter canyon for two decades, have filed suit.

"Someone should remind the FAA that they must answer to Congress, and ultimately, the American public," says Geoff Barnard, president of the Grand Canyon Trust.

Air tour operators have also announced a lawsuit. "I don't know why they're complaining," says Rob Smith, Southwest Representative of the Sierra Club. "If I were them, I'd be sending flowers and candy to the FAA."

Part of the rules are final and are to be implemented in May, but the FAA is accepting public comments on the proposed noise standards and tour routes.

Comments on the tour routes must be received before Jan. 30 and mailed in triplicate to: FAA, Attn. Dave Metzbower, Air Carrier Operations Branch, Flight Standards Service, AFS-220, 800 Independence Ave, SW, Washington, DC 20591.

A map of the routes may be obtained by contacting Denise Cashmere of the FAA at 202/267-3717. Comments on the noise standards must be marked "Docket No. 28770" and received before March 31, either mailed in triplicate to: FAA, Office of the Chief Counsel, Attn. Rules Docket (AGC-200), Docket No. 28770, 800 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC 20591.

Dennis Brownridge is a high school teacher in rural Arizona, who has been visiting Grand Canyon since 1951.