FLAGSTAFF – Sen. John McCain on March 16 introduced a measure that would speed up a yearslong effort to manage flights and noise at the Grand Canyon by imposing guidelines on air traffic routes and incentives for conversion to quiet aircraft technology.
The Arizona Republican’s amendments also would establish new times at which aircraft wouldn’t be allowed to fly near sunset and sunrise, among other things.
Nearly 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, and tour agencies do a brisk business in offering thousands of helicopter and airplane flights over the iconic park.
But hikers and tourists on the ground have complained that the aircraft noise interferes with the feeling of solitude and overall natural appreciation of the canyon, Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Steve Martin said.
McCain helped pass the National Park Overflights Act in 1987, directing the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service to restore the Grand Canyon to its “natural quiet” by reducing noise from low-flying aircraft.
He has expressed frustration over decades of inability by the two agencies to prepare and issue a plan to manage air traffic, though lawsuits figured in to the delays. McCain spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, said the senator doesn’t want to wait any longer.
“It is time to provide the Park Service the clarity necessary to move forward with reasonable guidelines for air tour operations over the canyon,” she said.
The park would be considered naturally quiet if for at least 75 percent of the day – 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. – 50 percent of the park would be free of sound from commercial air tour operations, under McCain’s amendment co-sponsored by Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, and Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign. Many of the flights originate from Las Vegas.
Higher percentages have been discussed among stakeholders.
McCain’s amendment comes ahead of a planned release of a draft environmental impact statement that would include a host of alternatives for addressing overflights. If the amendment is approved in Congress, any alternative that doesn’t conform with McCain’s newly suggested guidelines would have to be redone.
Environmental groups see McCain’s efforts as a way to maintain much of what has been the status quo at the park that they have long contended isn’t good enough to preserve the serenity of the canyon. They also contend the guidelines favor the air tour industry and would not allow for public comment.
Jim McCarthy of the Sierra Club said the amendment essentially could void any progress made by a group of stakeholders that includes tribes, the air tour industry, environmentalists, the FAA, the park service and recreationists.
“It is incremental destruction of the Park Service’s ability to control noise,” he said. “This will probably delay the action another six months, I would guess.”
Martin noted some improvements that are part of McCain’s amendment, including pushing air traffic farther away from popular hiking areas on the west rim and capping flights around Marble Canyon.