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Overflight Oversight

Although they are a popular way to experience the
national parks, air tours must be regulated to ensure
resource protection and public safety.


The following article was taken from the SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1997 issue of National Parks magazine, which is a publication of The National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA).

THE UNIQUE, soul-touching experience enjoyed by so many visitors to Grand Canyon National Park derives not only from the park's majestic tranquility and visual splendor, but also from the natural sounds within and around the canyon.

The ambient sound in a park, or "natural quiet," is precisely what most Americans want to experience when they visit these treasured places. It is as crucial an element of the beauty of certain parks as those resources that we can see and appreciate.

One of the biggest threats to natural quiet comes from the buzz of air tours - or overfllights. The number of air tours over Grand Canyon alone nearly doubled between 1987 and 1994. In addition to the fact that noise generated by the planes may detract from a natural resource and visitor enjoyment, overflights raise important safety issues that regulators must address first and foremost.

The safety and noise issues presented by Grand Canyon overflights were addressed as early as ten years ago, when Congress passed a law designed to protect and preserve the quiet at the canyon. The act, which I helped to author, banned flights below the canyon's rim and required the designation of flight-free zones. It also required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to prepare and issue a final plan for the air space above Grand Canyon. The FAA administrator was required to develop a final plan by implementing the Department of the Interior's recommendations unless they affected aviation safety.

It was not until last year that FAA issued a final rule that modified and expanded flight-free zones, placed a temporary cap on the number of air-tour flights, set curfews for commercial sightseeing operations, and altered air-tour routes in the canyon.

The rule was scheduled to be implemented by the end of this year, but FAA delayed until January 1988 implementation of the modified flight-free zones and new routes to provide additional training time for air-tour operators.

One major disappointment with the final rule is that it did not contain incentives for quiet aircraft technology. Using quiet aircraft offers the most promising approach to meeting our ultimate goal - substantial restoration of quiet in the Grand Canyon. So while we have made progress toward reducing noise at the canyon, we have fallen short of our ultimate goal.

Meanwhile, the same overflight problems afflicting Grand Canyon are evident in other parks. In 1995, the National Park Service (NPS) submitted a report to Congress stating that 70 percent of the managers who parks were affected by overflights identified aircraft as a potential sound problem. At more than a dozen of the 91 parks surveyed, managers indicated that they were either "very concerned" or "extremely concerned" about overflights. Managers at 16 parks said that overflights represented a serious or very serious safety problem.

Our experience regulating flights at Grand Canyon has taught us some valuable lessons. We cannot wait until natural quiet has been lost before we take steps to prevent the impairment of natural resources. It also reminds us that safety in the air is a paramount concern, and that we can improve safety through regulations.

To begin addressing these concerns, I introduced the National Parks Overflight Act of 1997. This bill seeks to promote safety and quiet by providing a fair and balances process for developing flight management.

Under this legislation, as under the 1987 act, the secretary of the Interior would develop recommendations that may include flight-free zones, curfews, and other restrictions for aircraft operating over certain national parks. The FAA administrator would then develop a plan, based upon these recommendations, to promote quiet and safety in our parks. The entire process would be completed within months after enactment of this legislation and after an opportunity for public comment.

This bill would also require the Interior secretary to recommend prioritization on implementing appropriate flight restrictions at parks with the most serious problems. The bill would further require the secretary and the administrator to propose methods to encourage the use of quiet aircraft in our parks, unless such proposals are not needed to meet the goals of protecting quiet and promoting safety.

The 1997 act would promote safety by allowing the FAA administrator, in consultation with the secretary, to set minimum altitudes for overfllights in certain parks. Under the bill, as with the 1987 act, the administrator could revise the secretary of the Interior's recommendations to ensure public safety goals are met.

While I am committed to protecting natural quiet in our parks, I also appreciate that air tourism provides a legitimate way for disabled and elderly visitors to see our national parks. NPS is charged with both protecting park resources and providing for visitor enjoyment. We must be committed to restoring and preserving natural quiet in parks without preventing or limiting the enjoyment of those who wish to visit and appreciate those resources.

I believe that, at a minimum, a fair process for developing air-space restrictions would require: public involvement; provisions that promote cooperation between FAA and NPS and recognize their distinct and important missions; and the involvement of local park superintendents.

This bill seeks to promote safety, protect vital park resources, and provide for the continued enjoyment of our parks by visitors. If any leg of this stool is missing, I believe a plan to restore quiet in our parks will fall apart.

First and foremost, we must promote and preserve safety. As air-tour operations in many parks continue to grow, we must the issue before tragic accidents occur. Second, natural quiet must be protected with the same serious purpose with which we set forth to protect any other natural resource within our national parks. And finally, providing for visitor enjoyment is crucial since we seek to protect and preserve park resources and provide safety with the understanding that park visitors are intended to be the beneficiaries of our efforts.

I know that when we have accomplished these goals, we will have gone a long way toward becoming, in the words of T.S. Eliot, one of those "happiest" of lands, "...those in which a long struggle of adaptation between man and his environment has brought out the best qualities of both."

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-Ariz.) serves on the
Senate Armed Services and Indian Affairs
committees and chairs the Commerce,
Science and Transportation Committee.
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