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Coconino Voices: Flights promote access, diversity

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The National Park Service is currently considering new overflight rules for Grand Canyon. In general, the proposals are intended to constrain and regulate the air tour industry in ways that will do little to improve and enhance the experience of visitors to this scenic place.

Indeed, considering the wide array of human interactions with the Grand Canyon, you would be hard-pressed to find any activity that has less of an environmental impact than do these overflights. Less than the visitors to the rim, the hikers below the rim or the boaters on the river. And, certainly less than the NPS helicopters that fly below the rim, whose impacts are excluded from this proposal.

However, the Park Service has been charged by Congress to restore "natural quiet" to most of the Grand Canyon. Exactly what this means is contentious. It doesn't necessarily mean quiet as you and I would understand it. And, while I would consider humans as part of nature, that's not what they mean, either. Suffice to say it really boils down to competition among various special interests and how they want to control the Grand Canyon experience.

Among those special interests are my brothers and sisters in the backpacking community. You may be surprised to learn that they are a selfish and greedy lot, who would like to have the Grand Canyon all to themselves, without the inconvenience of other people intruding on "their" special place. It would be a huge mistake to assume that they have some singular insight about the canyon. If that was true, then my 30-plus years of hiking the canyon would give me more influence than I have, assuming I have any. I do more than tolerate the fact that other people will want to experience the canyon in ways different from me; I embrace this diversity of experiences, and consider them all equally valuable to the human condition.

I do not envy the balancing act that the Park Service has to maintain. I agree with much of what they have already done - no air tours over the corridor area, nor over the developed areas of the rims, nor at the beginning and end of the day. There should be separation as well as accommodation.

But, their current proposal goes too far. They want to create seasonal shifts in the two overflight corridors, closing each for half the year. And, they want to expand the daily curfews to 15 hours a day, in the summer, and 17 hours a day, in the winter.

These particular restrictions will have the effect of increasing the congestion along the overflight corridors, potentially doubling the traffic on those routes when they are open. When I quizzed an official at the open house about this point, they seemed surprised by this simple math.

Further, the imposition of a daily cap and the raising of the minimum elevation level in the flight-free zones appear to be solutions in search of a problem, and without any but the most arbitrary of reasoning.

More troubling is the bureaucratic mandate of so-called "quiet technology" within 10 years. Wouldn't it be nice if the government could just wave a magic wand and make aircraft quiet? I don't know anyone who is opposed to such technology, but the question is always going to be one of costs and whether the tradeoffs make it a worthwhile proposition. I am content to let the market determine the extent and pace of the introduction of such technology, rather than some bureaucracy.

In the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Alternative A is identified as the "No Action" alternative. That is a bit of a misnomer, as it leads to "substantial restoration of natural quiet ... over ... 53 percent of the park." That meets the Congressional mandate and should be acceptable to everyone until we revisit the issue again in 2021.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, has hiked the Grand Canyon since 1977, has testified before a congressional committee on Grand Canyon management issues and has taken two helicopter tours of the Canyon.


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