Helicopters in the Canyon - an editorial comment
Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt has announced a final rule regarding aircraft overflights in Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, it is significantly weaker than we had hoped.
Rather than limiting the number of operations as proposed in the draft rule, the final rule calls for caps on the loudest of aircraft. However, tour operators can continue to introduce an unlimited number of less noisy aircraft, and new businesses using this technology will be allowed to enter the market. Since even the quietest aircraft makes a lot of noise, any gains made by the transition to these aircraft will be lost by allowing still more of them into the airspace. Congress passed the 1987 Overflights Act recognizing that there were already too many flights; now there are twice as many. While virtually every other form of Grand Canyon visitation is limited, the FAA seems incapable of grasping the concept that such restrictions are necessary to protect the resource and the visitor experience.
The rule sets daily curfews on some tours, but the majority of aircraft overflights - those originating from Las Vegas - are exempt.
The FAA created a new "flight free" zone in Western Grand Canyon, but flights above 8,000 feet in elevation are exempt. The proposed Marble Canyon flight free zone was omitted altogether. New maps depict proposed routes which remain largely unchanged, with flights still being allowed over some of the most sensitive areas of the park. The FAA was directed by two acts of Congress, as well as Executive Order, to restore natural quiet to Grand Canyon; this rule won't even come close.
Nevertheless, air tour operators expressed outrage, and filed a challenge in federal court on January 3rd. In response, seven environmental organizations including Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks & Conservation Association, the Wilderness Society, Grand Canyon River Guides, the Audobon Society, and Friends of Grand Canyon filed suit in kind a week later. More information on this rule, and the complete text, is available on our web site at:
Meanwhile, the FAA also announced a proposed rule which could mandate conversion to quieter aircraft over the next decade. The proposal places tour aircraft into three categories, with Category A being the loudest, Category C the quietest technology currently in use. Proposed noise criteria are obviously too lenient, however, as a Bell Jetranger helicopter is placed in Category B, which won't be phased out for a decade. In fact, no helicopters - often cited as the most offensive of aircraft in use - fall into Category A, which are due for phase out by the turn of the millennium.
The rule also suggests establishing a tour route over National Canyon, through a flight free zone, limited to Category C aircraft. Since even the quietest aircraft operate at decibel levels which require the use of headphones to prevent hearing loss, it is unacceptable to allow any aircraft to operate in any flight free zone. The zone protecting National Canyon was one of the slight wins within the final rule, and should not be case aside.
Please take the time to comment on this proposed rule. You can send comments by Internet to:
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For more information, please contact or office or access our internet site at:
- Jeri Ledbetter
President, Grand Canyon River Guides