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McCain amendment aims to undercut Grand Canyon noise reduction plan

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Senator John McCain has introduced legislation that would derail the National Park Service’s recently-released compromise plan to reduce noise levels in the Grand Canyon.  McCain’s initiative, apparently included in an amendment to another bill (details are sketchy so far, with nothing on McCain’s website so far), would declare that keeping half of Grand Canyon National Park relatively free of noise from air tours is good enough.  By contrast, the NPS proposal, which increased the total number of tourist flights allowed but concentrated them in smaller flight zones, would keep two-thirds of the canyon free of any aircraft noise (including commercial jets and non-tour private aircraft) for most of the day.

McCain seeks to codify what has been the Park’s modus operandi for the past 17 years, a 50% protection standard that was achievable without making major changes.  That interim approach was adopted while Park staff, environmental groups, and air tour operators attempted to come to a consensus on how to move forward.  While the NPS does not and cannot regulate commercial overflights, the sound from high-flying jets does impact the canyon, and the NPS included these sounds in its planning of air tour routes, so as to keep aircraft noise inaudible for 75% of the day in the “quiet” parts of the park (of course, allowing aircraft noise for 25% of the day hardly creates an experience of solitude…but this is part of the compromise that wilderness advocates are being asked to accept).  By not counting commercial flights in the total noise budget of the Park, McCain is rolling things backward.

The McCain approach would also do away with two of the Park Service’s key innovations: seasonal shifts of air tour routes, so that different parts of the park are quiet at different times of the year, and most importantly, the no-fly period that would keep the canyon truly quiet for an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.

Ironically (or perhaps not, for those tracking the Maverick’s devolution over the past few years), McCain was the main proponent of the 1987 bill that set this process in motion, and called for “substantial restoration of the natural quiet and experience of the park.”

NPS calls for sunrise/sunset no-fly times at Grand Canyon

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CopterOverGrandCanyon copy

The National Park Service has released its proposed air tour management rules for the Grand Canyon.  Key features of the plan include increased flight altitudes near North Rim overlooks, reducing flights in Marble Canyon, moving routes away from some key visitor use areas, and establishing an hour-long flight-free period for an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.  This last change will be especially appreciated by backcountry hikers and river-runners, for it provides two hours a day of true extended natural quiet, at the times when the soft, rich light brings the canyons walls most subtly and dramatically alive.

The proposal caps nearly 25 years of work, initiated in the wake of a 1987 congressional mandate to come up with a plan that “provides for substantial restoration of the natural quiet and experience” of the Canyon.  The proposal would allow slightly more flights than are currently operating, but would largely concentrate them in one long and one short flight loop. The plan is now available for download and public comment through early June.  The NPS press release notes that the plan should increase the area of the park experiencing substantial natural quiet for most of the day from just over half to close to two thirds.  The objective measurement standard used by the Park Service defines substantial natural quiet to mean that in these areas, no aircraft will be audible for at least 75% of the day; so, you might hear a plane for up to one minute of every four, or fifteen minutes of each hour, though undoubtedly there will be some areas of the park far enough from the flight routes that the noise will be very faint and far less common.  Once we have time to read the full Draft EIS, it may become clearer whether there are some areas in the park that are virtually free of air tour noise (commercial airline flights regularly pass directly over the park; the plan does not suggesting shifting these routes).

The busiest year on record, 2005, saw 57,000 air tour flights provide birds-eye-views of the Canyon to over 400,000 visitors annually; the new plan would allow up to 65,000 flights annually, and up to 364 flights a day, 50 more than the busiest day on record.  Initial reactions from the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club, both of which have pushed for flight regulations, has been supportive.

Update, 2/4/11: 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.”  His objections are largely centered on the requirement that within ten years, all planes must be modern low-noise aircraft. He also objected to the annual cap of 65,000 flights, claiming that the annual number of “possible flights” is now 94,000 (presumably this totals all current operators, if they all flew the maximum number of flights possible per day; in fact, as noted above, the busiest year on record saw a demand for just 57,000 actual flights).

Update 2/6/11: Good article from Las Vegas newspaper, stressing the role of Grand Canyon tourism as part of what Vegas visitors want to experience, often by air.

Update 2/7/11: Good detailed post from National Parks Traveller, including longer response quotes from Park staff and conservationists.  One key piece: the plan continues the practice of allowing flights over the canyon near Hermit’s Rest, a popular spot for short hikes into the canyon:
“We had advocated that they move the Hermit flight path a little bit further to the west so that it really didn’t affect people who would take a quiet stroll down from Hermit’s Rest, down that little canyon,” said NPCA’s Mr. Nimkin. “That’s where you can sit there and every 90 seconds have a helicopter or a plane flying overhead. It would seem like that’s a pretty highly visited area, maybe one of the only times that people who are taking a shuttle out to the end of the road there would sort of stroll down into the canyon. To have that be the flight path seems inconsistent.”

See earlier AEInews coverage of Grand Canyon overflights here.

Will Senate swallow McCain’s bait on last-minute Grand Canyon overflight intervention?

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UPDATE 3/25: In response to a quick wave of outrage on editorial pages and some Park Service lobbying, Senator McCain has withdrawn his proposed amendment.  It remains to be seen whether he will let the NPS EIS process set the final rules, or seek to have the Senate write rules if the process lags or heads toward a resolution that differs from his sense of the proper balance.

That John McCain can sure be a puzzle.  Or is it a case of the old maverick’s bait and switch, staking the high moral ground while pursuing a typically old-guard agenda?  Whatever he’s up to, let’s hope the rest of his Senate colleagues don’t buy into it.  Way back in 1987 McCain led the push to enact the National Parks Overflights Act, which called for the FAA and NPS to come up with a plan to reduce the aircraft noise experienced by Grand Canyon visitors.  This was a truly welcome and indeed, maverick move.  In the 23 years since then,  as noted by the Arizona Republic this week, “the process of adopting a noise-management plan often seemed to move at the same geological pace as the forces shaping the Canyon. ”  This has frustrated advocates for natural quiet, and it has frustrated Senator McCain.  So when the Senator introduced an amendment last week to codify air tour rules, saying that  the amendment reduces excessive aircraft noise “without waiting another 23 years for progress,” it might appear that he’s still taking the high road, standing up to the ridiculous bureaucracy.

But wait: what the good Senator neglected to mention is that the NPS Environmental Impact Statement governing overflights is due out sometime in April.  Yes, the 23-year wait is at its end, after years of collaborative dialogue and NPS research, and within a few weeks, we’ll see what the NPS has proposed.  Yet for some reason, the great champion of the process wants to undercut that work and impose his own version of what would be right and good.  According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the plan McCain is putting forward would allow more air tours than are currently permitted, and otherwise constrain the Park Service’s ability to manage air tours in order to fulfill the original 1987 Act’s stated purpose of “substantial restoration of natural quiet.”  While most of McCain’s amendment seems to mimic what the NPS has indicated it’s aiming for, an FAA-convened working group fell apart over some of the NPS ideas, seasonal limits on certain popular air-tour corridors.  Air tour managers were upset at some NPS provisions, and in the wake of the group’s failure, the FAA’s role is diminished as the NPS moves ahead.  While the EIS is due in April, comment period will follow, and of course, lawsuits by air tour groups or environmentalists looking for more quiet could also delay implementation.  All this may well fuel McCain’s efforts to get something closer to the FAA or air tour groups’ sense of a fair balance into law, rather than wait through the likely challenges.

The Senate is likely to vote on McCain’s amendment this week; the measure may well slip through, as it is co-sponsored by both Arizona and both Nevada Senators (yes, Harry Reid); many air tours originate in Las Vegas.  The NPCA is urging members to call their Senators, and the Arizona Republic also weighed in against short-circuiting the nearly completed EIS.  (Ironically, the NPCA honored McCain in 2001 for his leadership on the overflight issue.)  See also Senator McCain’s floor statement, and the text of his amendment.  If you do call your Senator, this is Amendment 3528, being attached to the Senate’s consideration of HR 1586, which proposes a tax on bonuses paid by some recipients of TARP funds.