I guess the third time was the charm for John McCain in his relentless quest to undermine the National Park Service’s decades-long effort to slightly reduce aircraft overflight impacts in the Grand Canyon backcountry. Since the NPS released its draft plan several months ago, McCain had crafted amendments to a couple of pieces of legislation in an effort to codify the status quo overflight rules; this week, it was inserted into the Transportation bill that was passed by the House and Senate and quickly signed by President Obama. The Arizona and Nevada congressional delegations, including Harry Reid, had supported the effort to assure no changes to air tour operations (most air tours are based out of Las Vegas, allowing casino visitors a quick look at the canyon).
Despite the fact that the NPS draft would have allowed more annual tourist flights than have ever occurred, the air tour industry painted the plan as an economic death sentence. The plan would have created some seasonal flight path restrictions, offering different areas of the park a bit more sonic space at different times of year, and, most substantially, would have kept air tours out of the sky for an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. I have to wonder if the sunset restriction may have been the bitterest pill for the air tour operators to swallow, though it would have been a substantial boon for hikers and river rafters. Given the relatively soft definition of quiet being attempted, to have a couple hours a day of soft light and no air traffic seemed to me to be the fairest solution.
The NPS plan would have aimed to let 70% of the park experience “substantial natural quiet,” which means no planes audible 75% of the time (i.e., planes can be audible one minute of four, or fifteen minutes per hour, hardly a pristine soundscape). The McCain effort as passed will maintain the status quo of substantial natural quiet in half the park; the other half of the park has no limits on aircraft audibility.