The National Park Service has released a draft, more than 20 years in the making, of potential plans to restore quiet to Grand Canyon National Park by reducing noise from aircraft that give tours and that bring visitors in and out.
The preferred plan out of four available for public comment through June 6 would place a cap on the number of daily and yearly tour flights, restrict flights over some areas of the canyon on a seasonal basis and force operators to make aircraft quieter.
The draft is a response to the 1987 National Parks Overflights Act, which required the National Park Service to address the impact of flights over parks, including creating a “substantial restoration of natural quiet” at Grand Canyon National Park. It details the environmental impacts of the four options.
One other proposed course of action would make even more areas of the park off limits to flights, while another would make fewer areas off limits. Another option studied was doing nothing.
Palma Wilson, the acting park superintendent, said the preferred alternative is based on data collected since 2000 as well as comments from stakeholders including tribal leaders, environmental groups and air tour industry representatives.
“Unfortunately, with the diversity of the group we could not reach a consensus, but because of the group we were able to use some of the ideas they talked about in the plan,” Wilson said.
In order to qualify as sufficiently reducing noise, all of the alternatives presented by the National Park Service, Rick Ernenwein, lead planner in the Office of Planning and Compliance, explained in a teleconference, must result in natural quiet in at least 50 percent of the park for at least 75 percent of the day, every day. The agency’s preferred alternative would result in quiet in 67 percent of the park by the end of 10 years, Erenwien said.
Among other things, the National Park Service’s preferred alternative would cap yearly tour flights at 65,000 and daily flights at 364. In an interview, Erenwien said the caps are based peak flight numbers and that the annual cap allows for 8,000 more flights than the busiest year while the daily cap allows for 50 more flights than the busiest day, both recorded in 2005.
The plan would also restrict short tours from flying over Zuni Point and Dragon Corridors, near the southeastern end of the canyon, in alternating six-month periods and would require aircraft to convert to quiet technology within 10 years. All of the regulations would only apply to aircraft flying at or below 17,999 feet.
Steve Bassett, president of the U.S. Air Tour Association, characterized the National Park Service’s recommendations for the Grand Canyon as “unconscionable” and the document as “designed to drive the industry out of existence.”
In an interview with Cronkite News, Bassett said that converting to quiet technology is very expensive and that some tour companies can’t afford it. He also said that since the annual number of possible flights is now around 94,000 the plan would be reducing flights, not increasing them.
“Any reduction in flights would be extraordinarily hurtful for us,” he said.
David Nimkin, southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said he is concerned that the plan would allow for even more tours and questioned whether noise would actually be reduced. However, he said it is too early to pass judgment on the Park Service’s strategy given the hundreds of pages in the document.
“What I do know is that this process is incredibly complicated … and what I hope is that the Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration have tried to thread the needle,” he said.