TESTIMONY OF GRAND CANYON TRUST

REGARDING NATIONAL PARK OVERFLIGHTS AND S. 268

before the
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
United States Senate

Presented by Tom Robinson,
Director of Conservation Policy

July 29, 1997

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting the Grand Canyon Trust to participate in this hearing today. My name is Tom Robinson, and I am Grand Canyon Trust's Director of Conservation Policy. The Grand Canyon Trust is a regional organization, based in Flagstaff, Arizona, dedicated to the conservation of the natural and cultural resources of the Colorado Plateau. We have been working to protect the natural quiet of our national parks, especially on the Plateau which is home to two dozen units of the National Park System, for more than a decade - almost, but not quite as long, as you have, Mr. Chairman. The Trust welcomes today's opportunity to contribute to the discussion of how best to ensure that the natural quiet and experience of our National Park System are preserved for all to enjoy.

Senator McCain, the Trust applauds your persistent and dedicated leadership on this issue. The bill we are discussing today is modeled on the 1987 National Parks Overflights Act, which you championed. Your steadfast efforts to ensure implementation of that act, in particular Section 3, resulted in the first Aircraft Management Plan for Grand Canyon National Park. The 1987 Act gave unequivocal authority to the Secretary of the Interior to protect and restore natural quiet and to develop an aircraft management plan. The 1997 National Parks Overflights Act builds on this model, recognizing the Department of the Interior and National Park Service as the appropriate federal agencies to make resource management decisions regarding the protection of natural quiet throughout the Park System.

Grand Canyon Trust strongly supports the National Parks Overflights Act of 1997 because it directs the National Park Service to recommend measures to restore, protect, and prevent impairment of natural quiet in the national parks. Replicating the 1987 Act, it requires the Federal Aviation Administration to implement such measures, without change except as necessary to ensure aviation safety. As you stated in Flagstaff in August 1995, Senator McCain, "Congress clearly intended the Park Service to be the lead agency in composing plans to restore natural quiet. The FAA's role is to implement the Park Service's overflight plan, and to modify it only for safety considerations."

This principle is crucially important. The Park Service is our nation's paramount resource protection agency, the keeper of our natural treasures, like the Grand Canyon, Haleakala, the Great Smokies, Everglades, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite. This bill extends the Park Service's authority to develop an aircraft management plan for any park where the natural quiet resource is, or may be, impaired or threatened. It relies upon the agency with the greatest resource management expertise, the Park Service, to evaluate resource protection needs and recommend resource protection standards and measures. Importantly, it still relies upon the agency with the greatest aviation expertise, the FAA, to implement those measures safely.

Mr. Chairman, many members of this committee, park visitors, the Trust's own members and countless others are undoubtedly aware that natural quiet at the Grand Canyon has suffered terribly, indeed has decreased, in the ten years since the original Overflights Act became law. We must recognize that this failure is due to the flawed implementation of the law, rather than any flaw in the legislation itself, which is a good bill providing a good model. However, despite the clear authority of the Park Service to develop an aircraft management plan and the FAA's clear responsibility to implement it without change, the FAA and air tour operators have consistently undermined the Park Service's plan. The FAA has consistently underestimated the number of tour aircraft, made assumptions in noise modeling that defy the Park Service's definition of natural quiet and therefore overestimated the extent of the park that would achieve the natural quiet standard, and consistently refused to consider operational limits that would do the most to restore the natural quiet of the park. As you are aware, a decade ago, air tour operators testified that the 1987 Overflights Act would put them out of business. Instead, the number of tour flights over the Grand Canyon has more than doubled. Furthermore, the Park Service has been consistently overwhelmed by the FAA in the Park Service's efforts to identify and establish standards for natural quiet and propose and evaluate measures for its protection and restoration. Ten years after passage of the original Overflights Act, the proposed plan is being challenged in court both by environmental groups and tour operators, natural quiet has deteriorated at the park, and the number of air tour flights has more than doubled. To avoid these and other pitfalls in implementation, S. 268 must strengthen and state explicitly the Secretary of the Interior's authority, mandate, and legal duty to protect and restore natural quiet at parks throughout the National Park System.

Once this authority is clear, aircraft management plans developed by the Park Service could prevent the development of conflicts between natural quiet protection needs and aircraft overflights. For example, as part of the development of the General Management Plan at Zion National Park in southern Utah, park managers, in cooperation with air tour operators, have developed voluntary measures to minimize air tour impacts on the park. However, these measures are voluntary, and without legislation such as S. 268, the Park Service does not have the authority to require compliance. In addition, Bryce Canyon National Park is plagued by fixed-wing and helicopter overflights that impair both natural quiet and the visual resource, because they fly below the elevation of the park's rim overlooks. Other parks on the Colorado Plateau, such as Arches and Canyonlands, are threatened by tour overflights. Without S. 268, the Park Service does not have the authority to take action to prevent tour overflight noise impacts at these or other parks throughout the system.

In addition, we support your efforts to promote the use of the quietest aircraft technology available. Any measures that reduce the amount of noise generated by tour flights may be helpful in protecting natural quiet. However, it is important to note that so-called "quiet aircraft" are by no means silent. In many areas of the Park System, ambient sound levels are so quiet that they are not detectable by standard measuring equipment. Any tour flight noise in these areas is an unacceptable intrusion. We must recognize that other measures, such as operational limits, flight-free zones, or bans on tour flights, may be necessary as well.

We believe S. 268 should be enhanced in a number of ways:

First, it should address all units of the National Park System where natural quiet has been identified as a significant resource by the National Park Service. There are several land management designations administered by the Park Service, including national monuments, wild and scenic rivers, and national seashores, among others. The Park Service must be able to protect natural quiet in these areas as well. Some of them may some day become national parks, such as happened at Grand Canyon. If natural quiet has not been protected proactively in such units, it may not be recoverable later.

Second, in addressing natural quiet as a "part of the park's natural resources and experience," the bill should state explicitly that the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, has the sole authority to determine whether natural quiet is part of the park's natural resources and experience, and the responsibility to protect and preserve that natural quiet in the parks. As noted above, this addition would properly recognize the National Park Service's expertise in the resource management arena.

Third, the bill requires the Secretary of the Interior to report to Congress on the success of the plan in protecting natural quiet and any recommended revisions needed to accomplish the goals of the act. The bill should require the FAA to implement, without change except for safety reasons, any plan revisions the Secretary deems necessary to accomplish the goals of the act to preserve and protect natural quiet. That is, the bill should state explicitly that Congress intends these measures to succeed, not merely that the agencies need act but once for any given park, regardless of whether that single action accomplishes the mandated goal. We have learned this lesson the hard way at Grand Canyon, where the Park Service has determined that the 1988 Aircraft Management Plan has not restored the natural quiet of the park, yet the FAA maintains it has done all it is required to do under the Overflights Act of 1987.

Lastly, two other additions would strengthen S. 286. They are: (1) providing for the designation by the Park Service of "Flight-Free Parks" in units of the Park System that are without tour overflights and where natural quiet must be protected; and (2) requiring data collection to enhance management of tour flights, including operators' reporting the number of tour flights they fly, the routes and durations of their flights over park units, and accident rates, as well as investigating the feasibility of requiring automatic flight tracking systems on tour flights to provide altitude and ground location information.

Senator McCain, Grand Canyon Trust applauds your leadership in efforts to protect the serenity and solitude of our national parks, not just at Grand Canyon but throughout the Park System. We thank you for the opportunity to participate today, and look forward to continuing to work with you and the members of the Committee on this important issue.

 

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