Meeting on air-tour regs fails to break deadlock

 - December 19, 2007, 6:19 AM

Those among the 100 or so who came to a September 29 informational meeting in Flagstaff, Ariz., on Grand Canyon overflight issues, hosted by the National Park Service (NPS) and the FAA, expecting to hear of a breakthrough in a 17-year deadlock over aircraft noise left disappointed.

The only news of progress was the announcement that the NPS and the FAA, jointly tasked by the 1987 National Parks Overflights Act with “substantially restoring natural quiet” to Grand Canyon National Park, had agreed to talk to each other. Joe Alston, the park’s superintendent, opened the meeting by saying that the often contentious dialogue between the agencies “has been one of the more difficult processes I’ve been involved with.”

The Parks Overflights Act made the NPS responsible for making noise-abatement recommendations to the FAA. The National Environmental Policy Act made the FAA the lead agency, putting the NPS in a cooperating role. Moreover, the FAA has a constituency of airspace users, while the NPS is receptive to and strongly influenced by environmental activist groups.

To end the impasse between the two groups, last year the NPS and the FAA hired the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution (IECR), an independent federal agency, to serve as mediator “in addressing obstacles to their joint implementation of the Overflights Act.”

Mike Eng, IECR senior program manager, told the Flagstaff group that as a result, “The FAA and NPS have developed a good working relationship and are ready to explore the potential for a formal collaborative process [among] stakeholders” and the two agencies.

Last February, the FAA and the NPS issued a shared vision statement in which they vowed “To work collaboratively to achieve the goal of substantially restoring natural quiet to the Grand Canyon while providing a reasonable opportunity for visitors to experience the Grand Canyon safely by air tours, without adversely affecting the national aviation system.”

During mediation, Eng said, the agencies decided that resolving the noise issue required more outside participation than the standard pre-rulemaking public hearings. To assess the feasibility of involving affected parties in the decision-making, IECR hired Lucy Moore Associates of Santa Fe, N.M., a private-sector mediation firm.

Moore Associates has begun a “stakeholder assessment process” by interviewing approximately 35 people about their views on issues, areas of common ground and potential for a negotiated solution. Those stakeholders include air-tour operators, environmentalists, recreational groups and local and tribal governments as potential interviewees.

Later this month Moore Associates is to report to the agencies its assessment of the interview results and make recommendations. If the assessment recommends a collaborative process, the FAA and NPS will begin deciding on its structure, participants and scope.

A Long Road to ‘Natural Quiet’
There are a number of hurdles on the path to a final solution of the Grand Canyon “natural quiet” question. “Natural quiet” is still to be defined officially, and standards and methods of measuring it are only now being evaluated.

In addition, the FAA and NPS have asked another federal entity, the Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise, to recommend the best aircraft noise modeling protocols for the Grand Canyon. Lynne Pickard, FAA senior advisor for environmental policy, told the assembly that “We’re not currently engaged in talking about reducing anything. We are still in the noise assessment and measurement phase.”

Several environmentalist attendees expressed impatience with the pace of restoring “natural quiet.” Karen Trevino, manager of the NPS natural sounds programs, replied that lawsuits, both from environmental activists and air-tour operators, have hampered the process.

In addition, a 2002 NPS action further complicated noise measurement in the region. As a result of the action a federal appeals court ruled that noise measurement in the Grand Canyon must include not only air-tour operations (as it had until then) but also aircraft flying at any altitude. The noise-measurement task and the decision-making process must now evaluate and determine whether or how to deal with those additional sources.

During audience comments, an environmentalist and a local resident stated, “I regret to say that the only day in the last 30 years that I heard natural quiet was…[pause] courtesy of Al-Qaeda–September 11.”

That statement reflects two possible opinions held by many environmentalists: either restoration of “natural quiet” can be achieved only by complete elimination of aircraft operations over the Grand Canyon; or it can never be achieved at all.