Senator John McCain has introduced legislation that would derail the National Park Service’s recently-released compromise plan to reduce noise levels in the Grand Canyon. McCain’s initiative, apparently included in an amendment to another bill (details are sketchy so far, with nothing on McCain’s website so far), would declare that keeping half of Grand Canyon National Park relatively free of noise from air tours is good enough. By contrast, the NPS proposal, which increased the total number of tourist flights allowed but concentrated them in smaller flight zones, would keep two-thirds of the canyon free of any aircraft noise (including commercial jets and non-tour private aircraft) for most of the day.
McCain seeks to codify what has been the Park’s modus operandi for the past 17 years, a 50% protection standard that was achievable without making major changes. That interim approach was adopted while Park staff, environmental groups, and air tour operators attempted to come to a consensus on how to move forward. While the NPS does not and cannot regulate commercial overflights, the sound from high-flying jets does impact the canyon, and the NPS included these sounds in its planning of air tour routes, so as to keep aircraft noise inaudible for 75% of the day in the “quiet” parts of the park (of course, allowing aircraft noise for 25% of the day hardly creates an experience of solitude…but this is part of the compromise that wilderness advocates are being asked to accept). By not counting commercial flights in the total noise budget of the Park, McCain is rolling things backward.
The McCain approach would also do away with two of the Park Service’s key innovations: seasonal shifts of air tour routes, so that different parts of the park are quiet at different times of the year, and most importantly, the no-fly period that would keep the canyon truly quiet for an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.
Ironically (or perhaps not, for those tracking the Maverick’s devolution over the past few years), McCain was the main proponent of the 1987 bill that set this process in motion, and called for “substantial restoration of the natural quiet and experience of the park.”