Seeking a Silent and Serene Grand Canyon

By Andrea Leigh

unedited version of an article that appeared in the Sierra Club, Angeles Chapter newspaper, Southern Sierran.

copyright 1999

One feature of this ever-changing spectacle never changes—its eternal silence.

--Zane Grey, Grand Canyon visitors register, 1906

Imagine travelling for business to Las Vegas and finding that you have a day free. Lying down on your bed in your luxury suite at Mandalay Bay, you happen to glance over at your nightstand and eye a copy of “The Las Vegas Survival Guide.” Leafing through the pages you find what you’d expect—a list of dining options, show guide, tours to Hoover Dam--but what draws your attention are the more than a dozen ads offering scenic air tours over Grand Canyon.

$218 Grand Canyon Deluxe includes air tour over Lake Mead, Hoover Dam, fly beside the Schuwitz wilderness preserve, fly to Grand Canyon—enjoy air tour including Indian Villages, waterfalls, extinct volcanoes, colorful rock formations. 2-1/2 hour motorcoach tour along South Rim with plenty of photo and view stops. Delicious buffet luncheon. Enjoy relaxing flight back to Las Vegas for evening shows.

At least two-thirds of tourists who fly over the Grand Canyon are business travelers or foreign visitors out of Las Vegas who are in a hurry and, therefore, are willing to pay the exorbitant price in order to see the Canyon as quickly as possible. This excursion is little more than thrill ride entertainment, instant wilderness at a price, while disrupting the experience of those who choose to come to the canyon to appreciate and experience it on its own terms.

Although proponents of scenic air tours claim that air tours provide access to the elderly and disabled, this is nothing more than a smokescreen. In fact this view resulted in some within the disabled community to rally against the air tour operators when a quadriplelic testified that she had been refused a helicopter tour due to her disability but had no trouble getting on a raft trip. Grand Canyon is one of the most accessible national parks in the country. It takes little effort to take in its grandeur along scenic viewpoints easily accessed by automobile.

Another point the air tour industry tries to make is that scenic overflights are the most non polluting way to view Grand Canyon since air tours do not impact the park by leaving trash behind or causing trail erosion. This is a claim made by the American Recreation Coalition (ARC), whose recent lobbying efforts have included pay to play recreation in collusion with the National Forest Service. ARC, as a service to its air tour partners, has lobbied hard for virtually unregulated air tours.

Of all the things sought in wilderness, natural silence has become one of the hardest to find. There are certainly thousands of acres of wilderness that look the same as it did centuries ago, but few of these places exhibit pure, uninterrupted natural sounds. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency that controls airspace over national parks, has opposed restrictions of airspace to the point that working with the FAA to set limits has become extremely labor intensive and slow in coming. Currently there are some restrictions over Grand Canyon where there were none before. The main Grand Canyon corridor trails are off limits, for instance, as is the main visitor area along the South Rim—little comfort when considering that these areas make up a small percentage of the park.

John Muir wrote of the “silent, serene wilderness where the weary can gain a heart-bath in perfect peace.” With the constant drone of aircraft proliferating so many of our natural areas, it becomes increasingly difficult to seek the kind of peace Muir so long ago cherished.