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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3/25: In response to a quick wave of outrage on editorial pages and some Park Service lobbying, Senator McCain has withdrawn his proposed amendment.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.

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