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National Park Service seeks to curtail flights over the Grand Canyon

Ross D. Franklin / AP

A view from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, seen Jan. 10, 2009. The National Park Service wants to increase the natural quiet in the park by 14 percent.

Most of the nation’s 394 national parks don’t charge admission, but today, the first day of summer, entrance fees will be waived at the more than 100 parks that do.  

That includes Grand Canyon National Park, where there’s usually a $25 per vehicle entrance fee and a $12 per person fee for those who arrive on foot, by bicycle or motorcycle.

More than 4.5 million people visit the park each year, but up to 400,000 of those tourists may never step foot in the park. Instead, they fly over it in helicopters and small planes operated by a variety of air tour companies.

The flights offer breathtaking and unique views of the Grand Canyon, but also interfere with what park officials and others consider one of the area’s key attributes: the silence that’s part of the natural soundscape.

To reduce the level of aircraft noise heard in the park by both visitors and wildlife, the National Park Service is proposing a plan that would, among other things, cap the number of daily tours over the canyon at 364 and the number of annual overflights at 65,000. The proposal would also extend the curfew hours around sunrise and sunset when air tours are now prohibited.

The goal is to increase the natural quiet in the park to 67 percent (up from the current 53 percent) within 10 years to comply with the National Parks Overflight Act of 1987. The act calls for the “substantial restoration of natural quiet” in the park, including the absence of audible aircraft noise much of the day.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Mary Killeen, chief of planning and compliance at Grand Canyon National Park. “The companies want to fly whenever they want, but we have millions of people who come to the park who don’t want to hear air tours while they’re hiking and doing other activities on the ground.”

Andy Jacobs, a spokesperson for several air tour companies, said his group strongly opposes the caps and other parts of the proposal. 

“We think it goes a little too far. We think it will hurt the industry, hurt the local economy, hurt tourism and cut out more than 11 percent of our business during the peak part of season,” said Jacobs.

Palma Wilson, deputy superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, disagrees. “We’ve given them room to grow and given them incentives to go with quiet technology and alternative routes. They like to portray it that we are going to harm the region, but they will not suffer.” 

The current proposal has both its supporters and detractors, said Kurt Repanshek, who writes about the national parks in National Parks Traveler.  

“Those who visit Grand Canyon National …should be able to hear the warbling of canyon wrens, the roar of the Colorado River's rapids, and even the buzzing of insects instead of the whop-whop-whop of helicopters or the droning of planes."

Palma says park officials will now review and analyze public comments, develop a final environmental impact statement, and in March 2012, announce which proposal will be adopted.

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