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Coconino Voices: Should Canyon overflight rules be tightened?

Coconino Voices: Should Canyon overflight rules be tightened?

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My first hike into the Grand Canyon was a disaster. Overconfident and ambitious, I ignored ranger warnings and headed down, alone, in the heat of mid-August, on the Bill Hall trail -- a barely maintained route on the North Rim, and I got lost. At dusk, I curled into a ball underneath a plateau, terrified. I was out of water and out of food, except a golden-wrapped butterscotch in my jacket pocket. I watched the moon rise and lay there breathing, regretting my own bravado. It was a long painful night.

But then something remarkable happened.

The silence of the canyon filled me with calm. And under the gentle moonlight, I found water in pockets of rocks and prickly pears nearby, ripe and ready to eat -- just enough. Having centered myself and considered my choices all night, I was able to retrace my steps and find my way out.

But the experience so moved me, that soon after that, I moved to Flagstaff, so I could hike in the Grand Canyon on weekends and revel in quiet solitude. Unfortunately, I discovered the assault of a flyover zone. On the Boucher-Hermit trail, the high whine of planes and the choppy whoop-whoop of helicopters followed me as I walked; it was like having a personal leaf blower as a companion or having the continuous roar of machinery blaring in my ears. If I wanted that, I'd hang out underneath an airport runway or stand in the middle of a freeway divider.

But who would want that? Not many of us.

Now, if I'd gotten lost there, I could have flailed my arms like a lunatic and spelled out H-E-L-P with a bunch of rocks, and someone might have rescued me. It would have been safer. But then many lessons would have been lost: the basics of survival and of life, a moment to reflect on my own mistakes and correct them, a chance to experience the canyon in its full glory -- unadorned, open and tranquil. There are few spots on Earth that naturally evoke meditation, thought and wonder, and the Grand Canyon is one of them -- for now.

The National Park Service (NPS) has drafted an Environmental Impact Statement on protecting natural quiet in the Grand Canyon, which sounds like a good idea, but the details suggest a reversal. The current preferred plan would allow 8,000 more flights than in the busiest year, and 50 more flights than on the busiest day. Yearly, tour flights could reach 65,000, and daily 364.

Just writing that makes me agitated.

Our last decade was the loudest in the history of the world. Traffic, airports, the hum of air-conditioning, construction, grinding trucks, the neighbor's weed whacker--all add up to a continual clamor that puts us in a persistent state of alarm. Our blood pressure goes up. Our heart rates soar. Sugar pours into our bloodstream in preparation for a battle that never comes. We lose our ability to think and concentrate. We internalize city pressures - until we have a chance to get away, to places like the Grand Canyon.

Understandably, the Park Service is in a difficult place. It has a conflicting dictate: to preserve the wilderness and to provide access to the public, and that can be hard to balance. But the Grand Canyon already has a plethora of access points. On the South Rim, visitors have bus service, shuttles, train service, a highway, and a host of pullouts. Even the frailest newcomer can watch the ravens slope soar over the South Kaibab trail.

So who is this plan for? Again, not for many of us.

The question then is this: Should an individual have the right to fly over the Grand Canyon at the detriment to everyone else? No. They should not. Flyover zones simply don't belong in the Grand Canyon. The park should be approached with reverence, by walking, hobbling, crawling, riding a horse, or spinning in a wheelchair, and upon arrival, it should be filled with the rare wild mystery of silence, the sounds of nature, the call of the canyon wren, nothing more.

You can comment online until June 20.

Deanna Lynn Wulff is a freelance writer and, occasionally, a river guide and ranger.

On the Web:

The Draft EIS can be found online at by clicking on the project name, and then scrolling to "Open for Public Comments."

Written comments can be submitted online at the same Web address (the preferred method), mailed to Superintendent, Grand Canyon National Park,

Attention: Office of Planning and Compliance, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, Arizona 86023, or provided at one of the public meetings. Comments will be accepted through June 20, 2011.


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