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New Restrictions on Grand Canyon Flights Planned

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

The Clinton administration today intends to announce new restrictions on tourist flights over the Grand Canyon, hoping to reduce noise disturbance in the West’s most popular national park.

The rules will ban sightseeing flights over the canyon from just before sunset to just after dawn. The new regulations will also limit areas that may be flown over and prohibit air tour operators from adding planes to existing fleets.

“Today 40% of the park is flight-free. With this rule at least 80% will be free from aircraft noise,” said a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who plans to outline the scope of the regulations at a Washington press conference today.

As many as 800,000 sightseers fly over the Grand Canyon each year, according to the burgeoning air tour industry, and the administration hopes that the new rules will become a model for controlling noise in national parks elsewhere.

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But officials involved in the contentious rule-making process conceded Monday that noise over some of the most popular hiking trails in the Grand Canyon may actually increase as sightseeing flights are banned from less accessible parts of the park and funneled into fewer air corridors.

Additionally, the National Park Service now is concerned that air safety could be compromised if more flights are concentrated in the remaining open corridors, said George Frampton, assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

The prohibition also won’t prevent more activity over the canyon if air tour companies can schedule more flights with existing aircraft.

“There may be a few more flights in the next year or two,” Frampton said.

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Nonetheless, Frampton said Monday that the final regulations, worked out by officials of the Interior Department and the Federal Aviation Administration, represent “significant” progress.

“I look at this as being a very important step forward, but reaching the goal of achieving the ‘natural quiet’ called for by Congress will take another giant step, and getting there will probably be a struggle,” Frampton said.

That second step, which will be unveiled today as a proposed federal rule, would require air tour operators to replace about 40% of their aircraft with quieter planes in four years.

According to the U.S. Air Tour Assn., an industry lobbying group, sightseeing companies are responsible for 117,000 flights over the canyon that carry 800,000 people each year and account for $117 million in annual revenue.

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The National Park Service charges a fee for every flight, but Frampton maintained that many flights escape the fees. “We don’t have very accurate information on the number of flights in the last couple of years,” he said.

Federal officials estimate that the number of flights has doubled since 1987, when Congress passed legislation calling for the restoration of “natural quiet” in the canyon.

To meet that requirement, the Park Service called for rules that would impose quiet on half of the park 75% of the time.

In response, the FAA prohibited flights below the rim of the canyon and banned flights over some of the most accessible driving and walking destinations, including Grand Canyon Village on the canyon’s South Rim.

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Representatives of the air tour industry said those measures were sufficient and pointed to visitor surveys, which they said showed that most people no longer had concerns about noise.

But the initial steps taken by the FAA did little to satisfy backpackers and serious hikers who wanted to get away from the crowds but found themselves being buzzed by small planes and helicopters.

“For people who go to national parks to reconnect with nature, to listen to canyon wrens and watch eagles, the Grand Canyon has come to sound more like a flight path to a major airport,” said Bill Reffalt, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society.

Reffalt and other environmentalists who have been lobbying for tougher noise rules said they are disappointed with the new regulations because they don’t cap the number of flights and because the new flight-free zones are too far from established trails.

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On the other hand, Dan Anderson, president of the U.S. Air Tour Assn., said the new rules “discriminate” against his industry and against park visitors who can’t or don’t want to explore the park on foot.

“It’s being done to appease a small group of environmental extremists,” Anderson said.

Much of the debate between Anderson’s industry and advocates of quiet focuses on air space known as the “Dragon Corridor,” which is over the Hermit Trail, a favorite route of wilderness travelers in the park.

Along with officials of the Park Service, environmentalists had called for closing the Dragon Corridor to all tourist flights. But that proposal was rejected, Frampton said.

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“The Park Service doesn’t always get what it wants,” he said.

Instead, flights were banned over other areas of the park’s less-traveled back country, and the Dragon Corridor was left open to even more aircraft than visit it now.

“The government is putting air tourist safety at risk to achieve intangible environmental goals,” Anderson said.


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