Grand Canyon to Get Quieter

Grand Canyon, AZ – Grand Canyon National Park is about to get quieter. After January first the park service will issue its plan to cut down on noise pollution. The air tour industry is worried about its impact on business but hikers who want more tranquility in the canyon welcome it. From the Changing America Desk in Flagstaff Laurel Morales reports.

SFX: hiking

MCCARTHY: Watch your step yeah this is very close to the rim.

Avid hiker Jim McCarthy comes to the park year round. He calls the Grand Canyon his church. Indeed the views of the snow speckled limestone cliffs are divine on a cold winter morning .

MCCARTHY: It has a power of place. It's sort of like if you go somewhere like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You get a special feeling. And I get a special feeling here. But if an airplane goes over it destroys the spell.

Here on the popular rim trail, helicopters and planes aren't allowed to fly over. But a couple miles away at a trail called Hermit's Rest McCarthy says there's very little peace.

MCCARTHY: It'll be like standing next to a freeway. It never stops just one after another you can look up and see 6-7 helicopters and fixed wings. That's any moment of the day all day long and it's just crazy.

SFX: Helicopter flies over

McCarthy would like to see more restrictions on air tour operators. They fly two main routes and he'd like to see one closed for at least part of the year. He'd also like a longer quiet period after sunrise and before sunset.

BECKER: I really don't see any need for drastic change.

John Becker is the Chief Operating Officer of Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters.

BECKER: Right now the system is working. It's proven safe, and we have achieved natural quiet.

Papillon and other tour companies have kept within park limits ever since stronger sound regulations were implemented in the 1980s. Before then pilots could fly below the rim, down to the river and skim the tree line to thrill their passengers. But in 1986 a mid-air collision killed 25 people.

Since then the industry has been bogged down by even more regulations. Chief among those: aircraft cannot be heard in half the park for 75 percent of the day.

Matt Zuccaro is president of Helicopter Association International. ZUCCARO: We've gone through a lot of pain and suffering because of the initiatives put in place without thought and without cooperation. It's added time to our flights; it's added costs to doing our business.

Zuccaro says some companies are installing quieter technology on their aircraft at their own expense. Park Superintendent Steve Martin says he's willing to provide incentives for those companies.

MARTIN: I can appreciate the fact that it's spectacular to fly over the canyon but when I'm in the canyon I am cognizant of where I'm going hiking especially underneath the most active of the flight corridors.

Martin has the delicate task of reaching consensus with stakeholders on both sides, but he can't satisfy everyone including hiker Jim McCarthy.

SFX: hiking

MCCARTHY: My hope of hopes there wouldn't be any air tours at the Grand Canyon. They don't really belong here but realistically I know that's not going to happen.

The Park Service will release its proposal after the first of the year. It's expected air tour operators will be forced to make some concessions after the public gets its say.

At Grand Canyon, I'm Laurel Morales.