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Aircraft noise lingers at Grand Canyon.

Noise from airplanes and helicopters flying over the Grand Canyon exceeds limits set by federal law, a National Park Service study concluded this fall.

Legislation passed in 1987 calls for the "substantial restoration of natural quiet" in Grand Canyon National Park. But even in regions of the park where aircraft are not allowed, they are still clearly audible, the study found.

"News measures are obviously needed if we're going to attain the goals of the 1987 law," said David Simon, NPCA Southwest regional director.

Sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the law was enacted in response to the growing popularity of airplane and helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon and other parks. "Noise associated with aircraft overflights at Grand Canyon National Park is causing a significant adverse effect on the natural quiet and experience of the park," the legislation declared. There were also safety concerns after a 1986 airplane-helicopter crash in the canyon killed 25 people.

Under the law, regulations set up specific flight corridors for aircraft and "flight-free" zones covering 44 percent of the park. "The purpose of the flight-free areas is to provide a location where visitors can experience the park essentially free from aircraft sound intrusion," McCain said as he introduced the bill. But what the Park Service study found, said Linda Mazzu, natural resources specialist at the park, "is that the noise from flight corridors bleeds into flight-free zones more than we expected." The park's final report is due in November.

One problem, Mazzu said, is that the regulations "were based on a certain amount of aircraft" that has long since been exceeded. Over the past five years, the flightseeing industry at the Grand Canyon has grown dramatically. In 1992, 800,000 people toured the park by air, nearly double the 1988 figure.

The 1987 act called for new measures if the zone system did not restore natural quiet. At a late November work-shop, the Park Service, tour operators, environmental groups, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and others will discuss possible steps to take next. These may include limits on the number of aircraft; changes in the layout of flight-free zones and flight corridors; and incentives or requirements for the use of quiet aircraft technology.

At the same time these steps are being considered, Grand Canyon Airport outside the park is proceeding with plans for new airtour facilities. The FAA has agreed to pay 91 percent, or $952,000, of the cost of a new 25-acre heliport there.

The private companies that provide airtours over the park currently operate from a site near Arizona Route 64 and a site at the airport. It is generally agreed that, for safety reasons, all helicopter tours should operate out of the airport.

But "construction of new helicopter facilities has the potential to increase the capacity for overflights and thus will further negate the statutory goal" of restoring natural quiet, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt wrote to Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena in August. Babbitt and enviornmental groups have asked the FAA to ensure the new facilities do not mean more helicopter tours. They also asked it not fo fund other expansion projects at the airport until the Park Service presents its final report on overflights and the FAA completes related studies.
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Publication:National Parks
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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