Resources Committee grapples for footing on over-flight issue

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' bureau

CAMERON, Ariz., Oct. 13, 2011

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Four months after the comment period ended for the draft environmental impact statement on noise reduction over the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service is still waiting for an official policy declaration from the Navajo Nation.

Unfortunately, as with most issues, there is no obvious Navajo position. In this case, there is the position of the people who want to fly aircraft over the canyon, and the position of the people who are being flown over.

The Navajo Nation Council's Resources & Development Committee met Oct. 6 in Cameron to hear from both sides, plus the Park Service, local environmentalists and representatives of the air tour industry.

While all sides were hoping for a coherent Navajo policy to emerge, the committee never achieved a quorum and ended up planning a second meeting, this time in the most affected chapter - Bodaway-Gap. A date for that meeting is yet to be set.

Meanwhile, two Council delegates from Western Navajo are forging ahead on their own with a resolution asking the feds to exempt the Navajo Nation from any flight restrictions over the canyon, which would make the whole EIS issue moot.

On Tuesday the Nabik'yati Committee passed the resolution 14-0 and it is on the agenda for the Council's fall session, which starts Monday, Oct. 17.

The exemption would be similar to that granted the Hualapai Tribe, which has developed air tourism over their reservation bordering Grand Canyon National Park on the west.

A noise-reduction policy for the canyon has been in the works since 1987, when Congress directed the Park Service to "substantially restore natural quiet" in the park.

After much research and some aborted attempts to develop a policy, the NPS formed the Grand Canyon Working Group in 2005. The group included representatives of the tribes living in or near the canyon, major environmental groups, and air tour companies.

"We never reached a consensus," Grand Canyon National Park acting Superintendent Palma Wilson told the Resources committee, "but we did take a number of pieces and come up with four alternatives."

The draft EIS came out in February and was posted online. It was also presented at three public meetings, in Flagstaff, Phoenix and Las Vegas, Nev. Several Navajos attended the Flagstaff and Phoenix hearings.

"I don't think we made anybody happy," Wilson said.

In addition to the meetings, there were some 29,000 written comments on the preferred alternative before the comment period closed June 20.




Changes looming

While the Park Service heard from dozens of individual Navajos, "we have not yet received an official position from the tribe," Wilson said, and Shirley administration staffers who worked on the task force are no longer employed by the president's office.

The Park Service's preferred alternative would:

Allow only fixed-wing aircraft over Marble Canyon, where Lake Powell drains into the Colorado;

Make the curfews an hour earlier for tour flights - 5 p.m. in the summer and 4 p.m. in the winter;

Alternate use of two popular scenic routes, so that the Zuni Point route could be used only November-April and the Dragon Corridor only May-October;

Set a cap of 65,000 flights per year (actually more than have been flown in recent years);

Require all tour aircraft to convert to new quiet technology over the next 10 years, with the rule effective immediately in Marble Canyon.

Raise the altitudes at which aircraft are allowed to fly.

Of most interest to Dine living on the canyon rim, the controversial "Snoopy's Nose" route (so called because the outline of the route traces a profile of the popular Peanuts character) would be scrapped.

The route flies directly over the spectacular confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers - one of the most sacred sites in Navajo theology.

Members of the Wilson family (no relation to Palma Wilson, who is Anglo) had been lobbying for over a year for removal of the route, arguing the noise from the choppers not only disturbed the sacred site but their livestock and elders living on the cliff above the confluence.

But the new proposed route, for fixed-wing aircraft only, cuts deeper into Navajo airspace north of the confluence, and the Wilsons didn't seem to like that much better.

"There are people living there, too," said Dolores Wilson.

Palma Wilson explained that, because of the topography, flying over the nation was the safest route, and that quiet-technology airplanes would have to be used because the route goes to Marble Canyon.

The new route for helicopters goes about five miles south of the confluence into Cameron Chapter, which is hoping to develop a landing point and some air tour business of its own.

John Becker of Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters said the new rules aren't needed because the air tour companies are already policing themselves.

According to Becker, Papillon has converted 50 to 60 percent of its fleet to quiet technology already, and its rival, Maverick Grand Canyon Helicopters, is using only quiet-technology craft.

"I don't understand why you're looking at a big overhaul of the route structure, when in 10 years you'll achieve natural quiet in 64 percent of the canyon with no changes," he told the park brass.

Park Service scientist Rick Ernenwein, who had helped develop the draft EIS, said Becker's figures didn't jibe with the Park's own studies, and it was felt more restrictions were needed.

Willie Greyeyes of Navajo Mountain Chapter and Teddy Bedonie of Cameron Chapter wondered if the quiet technology was quiet enough not to disturb animals that have better hearing than humans.

"The noise disturbs my sheepdogs, and my sheepdogs wake me up, therefore it disturbs me," Greyeyes said.

Navajo Mountain Chapter President Alex Bitsinnie asked if the restrictions apply to military aircraft as well.

"If you go up farther north, toward No Man's Mesa and Rainbow Bridge, you see jet fighters flying around like it's their playground," he said.

Palma Wilson said employees have noticed military aircraft over the park as well.

"We had two jets fly over the canyon that weren't supposed to be there," she said, adding that she had talked to officials at Kirtland Air Force Base about the issue.

Credibility problem

Some attendees at the meeting professed not to trust the Park Service.

"I smell a hidden agenda," said Delegate Duane S. Tsinigine (Bodaway-Gap/Coppermine/K'ai'bii'to/LeChee/Red Lake-Tonalea). "The National Park Service may be planning some sort of economic development."

"We have no hidden agenda," Palma Wilson replied. "We have our developed area on the South Rim. We have no intention of doing any development on the (east) rim."

But some Navajos definitely want more development. Ivan Gamble, who has been working with Cameron Chapter on plans to develop a landing pad there, said the chapter unanimously passed a resolution in favor of development.

And Eunice Tso of the Flagstaff-based consulting group ETD declared the proposed restrictions are "just another way the federal government is going to stifle our economic development."

Dolores Wilson said her family might look more favorably on economic development if there were a piece of the pie for those who have to put up with airplanes and choppers flying overhead.

"It would be nice if you could up (the price of) those flights and give half of it (the money) to the chapter," she told the air industry representatives.

And in a long, impassioned speech in Navajo, Cameron Chapter resident Julia J. Curley urged the committee to "give us our land back, give us our lives back."

"I'm not saying no," she said of air tourism. "I want work for my children."

Resources committee Chair Katherine Benally (Chilchinbeto/Dennehotso/Kayenta) said the ultimate goal would be for the Navajo Nation to "become our own entity," but it's not going to happen until the tribe learns to live without the tens of millions in federal appropriations it receives to run its affairs.

"As long as we're getting these federal dollars, we're bound by these laws," she explained.

But Pamela Kysalka and Eddie Benally of the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife cautioned that, even if the federal restrictions were removed, the tribe has its own rules about disturbing endangered plants and animals.

"I would definitely want to look at that route that crosses the river," said Kysalka, who is charged with protecting endangered species. "My main concern is the raptors."

"If we ruin the Little Colorado River," warned Eddie Benally, "it will never come back."

Katherine Benally said her committee will study the issue and schedule another meeting within three weeks.

"We'll have a policy for you then," she promised the crowd of about 40.

Palma Wilson said the NPS hopes to have a final EIS by March of next year, but is waiting to hear an official position from the Navajo Nation.

The draft EIS can be reviewed online at parkplanning.nps.gov/grca.

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