The sounds of aircraft mingle with the wind and birds over Grand Canyon National Park http://www.nps.gov/grca as a bipartisan effort by Arizona and Nevada lawmakers slipped into the transportation bill killed National Park Service noise reduction efforts. An issue sharply dividing groups professing love for America’s most-recognized national park, noise from helicopter and propeller aircraft will not be subject to a pending government regulation.
Hailed by tour operators and employees, decried by environmental groups, the Park Service has struggled through three administrations to try and balance drastically competing interests—supporters of solitude and quiet and those who make their living from flying thousands of tourists over the uniquely American landscape.
Aerial tour operators claim more than 1,200 employees and $120 million in tourism revenue. This argument held sway with Republican lawmakers from Arizona and lawmakers from both parties in Nevada. The oddly cobbled coalition crafted legislation blocking the Park Service’s proposal to impose tougher noise standards. Led by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the bill passed June 27 and was signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“This bill means that the Grand Canyon is going to stay noisy from air tours, and it’s a good example of the effects of money on politics when you look at the stealth way that this was done,” said Rob Smith, senior organizing manager for the Sierra Club in Phoenix. “The Grand Canyon is one of the 10 Natural Wonders of the World. It shouldn’t sound like an airport.”
On the other side of the argument, tourism business interests believe the bill necessary to “stop government bureaucrats from imposing onerous regulation” on the industry. Industry representatives in Washington say the aerial tour operators have invested millions in quiet-technology aircraft.
No reaction has been forthcoming from the Park, as officials report the bill is still being reviewed and its impact unknown. Officially, the “Overflights in Grand Canyon National Park” is on page 446 of the 599 page 2012 transportation bill (H.R. 4348, “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act [MAP-21],” Section 31000)
Highly technical, the provision essentially maintains the status quo, which allows aircraft to fly over an area equal to about one-half of the park no more than 75 percent of the day. This means that visitors on the ground will have about one of four daylight hours to enjoy the park without the potential of hearing aircraft.
The industry has been acquiring reduced noise aircraft over previous years, and found proposed regulations reducing airspace to one-third of the park and half the day to be a serious threat to member businesses. The law requires tour operators to continue acquiring advanced technology aircraft further reducing equipment noise. All operators must convert to quiet technology within 15 years. Incentives built into the law—including increased flight opportunities—are to help offset the conversion costs.
Environmental groups supported the new regulations. The Park Service was in final stages of preparing the “substantial restoration of natural quiet” rules for public discourse when the surprise legislation was fast-tracked through both chambers of Congress.
“Park Service restrictions are unjustified and unneeded,” Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters and Grand Canyon Scenic Airlines spokesman Alan Stephen said. Living within park restrictions has required a lot of effort by the industry, according to Stephen. “Quiet technology conversion will be a big improvement for the Canyon. This law is fair for everyone.” Stephen says that vast majority of aerial tourists are foreign visitors on organized tours where individuals have little time to enjoy the park.
Not everyone agrees. Rick Moore, director for conservation programs at the Grand Canyon Trust, was quoted in The Arizona Republic saying that members of Congress and industry lobbyists have undermined years of effort by the Park Service to come up with a strong plan to restore natural quiet to the Canyon.
“One of the reasons we have national parks is to provide people with an opportunity to experience quiet and solitude,” Moore said. “We should be doing all we can in our national parks to provide that kind of experience. We’re disappointed that Senators John McCain, and Harry Reid did this kind of end-run around the process.”