Working group to address Grand Canyon noise issue

 - January 31, 2007, 8:23 AM

In 1987 the National Parks Overflights Act mandated substantial restoration of “natural quiet” at Grand Canyon National Park. Seventeen years later, the FAA and the National Park Service (NPS) agreed to resolve the overflight noise issues together. In the spring of last year they concluded that they might find a widely acceptable solution if they involved stakeholders, broadly defined as individuals and organizations with business, ideological or personal interest in the Grand Canyon.

The two agencies engaged Lucy Moore Associates of Santa Fe, N.M., to survey those stakeholders to determine whether a public collaborative process could produce an overflight noise solution. The survey agency asked a broad range of respondents for ideas about how such a process might work.

The two agencies announced at a February meeting of potential stakeholders that they have formed a subcommittee of the National Parks Overflights Advisory Group (NPOAG) consisting of 11 to 20 members. The committee will represent the air-tour, environmentalist, government and Native American tribal segments of the stakeholder community. This Grand Canyon overflight noise working group is to make recommendations to NPOAG, which has rulemaking authority.

Elling Halvorson, whose Papillon Airways is the largest helicopter air-tour operator flying from the Grand Canyon Airport, said he hopes the group will be “a reasonable way to get reasonable people together.”

Survey responses indicate that environmentalists and air-tour operators believe they have little room to compromise. Although operators are willing to sit at a negotiating table, most said they have no more concessions to offer.

The summary of stakeholder responses stated that tour operators believe they have already sacrificed enough to restore natural quiet. “Don’t ask us little guys to meet you in the middle–the middle is already behind us,” said one operator. Giving up any more in the way of routes, hours, seasons, altitudes or allocations would destroy his business, he emphasized.

Larger operators echoed the sentiment. “We’ve spent millions changing fleets and routes, and no one gives us credit for that. Don’t ask any more of us,” said a representative from one. At the September meeting, one stated that tour operators felt they had met the original intent of the “natural quiet” legislation only to “have the bar raised on us.” Some have already invested in new, quieter technology and hope that the investment will secure their businesses for the future.

The FAA has requested that individual Grand Canyon air-tour operators re-evaluate and possibly restate the number of flights they made in the 12 months before April 5, 2000. That period is the baseline for determining the maximum number of tour flights to be permitted in subsequent years. The FAA said some over-reporting (which would result in a higher number of permitted flights) might have occurred as a result of misunderstandings about the reporting format.

Environmental Concerns
Environmentalists feel that the protections now in place are minimal, and that the ideal is more restrictive definitions, standards, routes and management practices. They are reluctant to yield anything that would increase the number of air tours, survey analysts concluded.

Air-tour operators for the most part fear that the NPS has a hidden agenda to bar all air tours and perhaps eventually all aviation from national parks. Many feel that noise is merely the first issue and that the next targets will be visibility and airliner contrails.

As “environmentalist stakeholders” the survey contacted representatives of the Sierra Club, Friends of Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon Trust, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, National Parks and Conservation Association and the Wilderness Society. Comments from these stakeholders included: “The natural soundscape is a resource
of the park–a resource that the Park Service is mandated to preserve.”

The survey reflected environmentalist concern about whether decisions being made today are going to change the experience of the Grand Canyon forever. They insist that air tours destroy that resource. Most believe the ideal would be to eliminate them but realize that is not possible.

The poll of aviation interests focused on air-tour operators who fly both airplanes and helicopters. The survey also solicited comments from aviation associations, airlines, military, business and other general aviation interests. Among those interviewed were spokespeople for Air Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon Airlines, the Helicopter Association International, Papillon Airways, Sundance and the U.S. Air Tour Association.

Air-tour operators understand that noise from their aircraft can be intrusive. However, they point out that the original purpose of parks was to protect the resource for the enjoyment of visitors now and in the future, and that their services help visitors to enjoy the resource.