Acoustical Society of America
157th Meeting Lay Language Papers

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“The Grand Canyon” vs. “Soundscape from Nowhere (continued)”

Dick Hingson -
SIERRA CLUB – National Parks and Monuments Committee

Popular version of paper 4pNSb3
Presented Thursday afternoon, May 21, 2009
157th ASA Meeting, Portland, OR

It’s been almost 22 years since the National Parks Overflights Act mandated the prompt "substantial restoration" of the natural quiet of the aircraft-noise imperiled soundscape of the Grand Canyon National Park.  Long-scheduled critical compliance benchmarks have still not been met in the Park.

The Grand Canyon's hold on people is from ineffable qualities, of vastness, timelessness, mystery and wonder, supported by its profound, but fragile, natural silence.  The rapture grows in many with time and repeat visits.  But these qualities are threatened by growing aircraft noise over the Park.

Insight into these threatened qualities, as matters of ultimate concern, has been cumulatively developed from writings of the earliest Canyon visitors to famed sound recorder Gordon Hempton's just-released book, "One Square Inch of Silence"(Simon/Schuster, 2009).   The core concerns are similar for visitors in the backcountry of many of the great Colorado Plateau national parks, such as Zion or Canyonlands.
For many, the Grand Canyon has always been seen as the ultimate in natural theater, imagination, meditation, or spiritual renewal.  But because of the incessant plane or helicopter noise -- regardless of altitude -- we are driven increasingly into mental exile.  The Grand Canyon may look the same, but it surely doesn't sound the same anymore.
The silence is being obliterated by man, ever the conquistador.  Something priceless, immeasurable has become abandoned.  Our mental depths are thereby driven out, barred, persistently interrupted, and made inaccessible or otherwise lost -- and often at the most otherwise conducive or special sites.

Therefore, imperiled visitor experience was a key reason that Congress ordered the substantial restoration of the natural quiet at the Grand Canyon National Park.  That was in 1987.  How did Congress want this done?  By developing an aircraft management plan stringent enough to accomplish two things but short of banning aircraft altogether.  Senator McCain, as bill co-sponsor, set forth Congress’ intended management vision in his floor remarks of July 1987.   This all served as foundation for the new NPS standard for the "substantial restoration of natural quiet" in the mid-nineties.

By when was this restoration to be accomplished?  A naïve 100th Congress had presumed it would be by, say, 1990 -- but that wasn't to be.  It wasn’t until the 1994 NPS Report to Congress that the Park Service promulgated its richly written "road map," providing needed background, and illustrating how we could steadfastly return from acoustic exile.

Overall, NPS' report laid out a 15-year journey back to a healthy "substantially restored" Canyon.  The start date of the journey was March 17, 1994, (with the publication of an FAA Advanced Notice of Rulemaking in the Federal Register), and it was to be finished therefore, no later than the end of 2009.  President Bill Clinton hooked on to this time frame with his "Earth Day" 1996 Executive Directive but said the basic restoration standard was to be met by the same anniversary twelve years later, April 22, 2008.  The agencies, following suit, promised to meet the standard by then.

Clinton's directive honored "the urgency of now," in that it told the FAA to do a huge hunk of this job immediately (before the end of 1996).  Additionally, it was to have a comprehensive plan in place by 2001 in order to ensure the entire restoration was completed -- in the park -- by 2008.  (Without such Plan, as NASA well knows, rockets often wind up crashing in unintended places, losing communication, or spinning off into outer space).

However, the oft-contentious agencies responsible (DOT, DOI) did only a modest piece of improvement by 1997 and never even started the core plan by its intended completion date.  So, several years later, after years of thrashing the issue around in a contentious stakeholders' "collaborative" working group, here we are in mid-2009, still far up the proverbial creek -- late, tired, hungry -- with the Canyon noisier than when the 1987 law was passed.

Along the way, the matter was brought into the Court of Appeals (twice!).  In key aspects, the Court helped.  Still, the NPS and FAA and three Administrations haven't done what Congress meant (and re-asserted) them to do.  The present State of (non)Compliance is illustrated by a number of “warning flags”:  continued inter-agency fudging and growing tardiness, which continue to plague reaching a successful outcome.  The frustrated court still waits in the wings.

The key question is: "Will 2009 be the turning point to a quiet Canyon?"  The encroaching final deadline, combined with a fresh, environmentally poised administration, may provide impetus to still make a large difference -- via a sprint at this marathon's intended "last mile."

Needed elements are:

Specific, creative outcomes would include:

There have been vivid rays of new hope coming first from an initial oversight letter from Rep. Raul Grijalva, chair of the House National Parks subcommittee last September, then from a new wave of awareness within the incoming DOI and White House (which needs to be continually nurtured).
With the Grand Canyon as a bellwether, improved trend-maker, renewed hope could become transferable in terms of other pending aircraft/airport/air tour threats, involving other national parks.

Current threats from airport projects under public review at this time include three proposed airports in southern Nevada (with potential to impact protected areas in neighboring California and Arizona, including the Grand Canyon) and another inside the Grand Teton National Park (with Jackson Hole Airport now seeking a 20-year extension of its NPS Use Agreement.)  As for the 100 or so national parks experiencing commercial air tours, not a single park has yet received its Air Tour Management Plan for respite and relief, as was the promise of the Y2000 National Parks Air Tour Management Act.

Meanwhile, unacceptable degrees of helicopter barrage mixed variably with other, increasing aircraft noise will continue on, in various major National Parks, until these two laws are at last honored.

Tour helicopter crossing into Grand Canyon airspace at Papago Point, South Rim.  As many as 132,000 air tours a year have entered this airspace.  Photo by Dennis Brownridge.

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