Friday, September 29, 2017

Grand Canyon air tours: Conservationists hear noisy flights, tribe sees economic returns



LAS VEGAS — For a growing number of travelers in search of natural wonders, the road to the Grand Canyon starts here, along one of the loudest, brightest stretches of highway in America.

In any one of several small storefronts along the Strip, a salesman will sell the promise of a bucket-list trip, a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon and, for a little more, a boat ride on the Colorado River.

Air tour operators have been flying to the Canyon from Las Vegas for years, but the market has expanded fastest for trips to and from the West Rim, once a little used stop on the Hualapai Reservation, just beyond the boundaries of the national park.

Now the West Rim is a destination, its glass-bottomed Skywalk an international attraction and its airstrip the base for a steady stream of flights every day.

The Hualapai preside over the businesses, opened on a part of the Canyon that lies on the tribe's reservation, out of reach of many regulations. Las Vegas tour companies, using a loophole in flight rules, have tapped into an international tourist market to fill a seemingly unlimited number of flights over the Canyon.

Tribal officials say they are entitled to develop their economy and so far, elected officials in Arizona and Nevada have not protested.

But conservationists say the air tours have shattered the solitude of the Canyon and warn that continued growth could transform the Canyon from a majestic national park into another crowded tourist playground.

They also worry about the risks of accidents, a fear grounded in an often deadly history of air travel over the Canyon.




A pilot called 'Kamikaze'

The pilot is not named. Reports from the National Transportation Safety Board refer to him as the “accident pilot,” but also note that he had a nickname: “Kamikaze.”

Kamikaze was known to plunge into side canyons on his way to the Colorado River and fly close to canyon walls, according to the reports. He once asked a passenger if he wanted a helicopter ride or the E ticket, a dated reference to the most exciting Disneyland rides. Another passenger, a heart patient, was so upset by his experience he filed a complaint and demanded a refund, records show.

Sundance Helicopters Inc. suspended the pilot for a week because of the complaints, according to NTSB records. Business was good, and Sundance was short on pilots, so the company decided to have Kamikaze “serve his suspension later when we were not as busy or had more pilots,” according to NTSB records.

On Sept. 20, 2003, a helicopter piloted by Kamikaze crashed in Descent Canyon, east of Grand Canyon West Airport, on the Hualapai Reservation. The pilot and all six passengers were killed.

Airplanes and helicopters have been crashing over Grand Canyon for about six decades. In 1956, two planes crashed over the abyss, killing 128 people. The crash led to the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Three decades later, 25 people died when a plane and helicopter crashed at the park, which led Sen. John McCain to champion a bill regulating Canyon flights. The Arizona Republican said national parks regulate everything from trails to pets, and they should regulate air traffic as well.

Though McCain stood by the $50 million air tour industry, he also said he "would like to make it clear that the Grand Canyon does not exist for anyone's financial benefit."  

His bill, the National Parks Overflights Act of 1987, called for “substantial restoration of natural quiet” and “protection of public health and safety. …” It also called for “provisions prohibiting the flight of aircraft below the rim of the Canyon,” and studies of airplane and helicopter noise.

But the National Park Service and the FAA did not work well together. The Park Service wanted to restore quiet to the park, while the FAA was primarily concerned with safety. The studies dragged on, the tours continued, and both conservationists and tour operators grew frustrated with the process. Robert Arnberger, the park's superintendent from 1994 to 2000, said working with the FAA was "like having a root canal.”

“You’ve got these agencies that are suspicious of each other. That’s going to drag it out,” said Dick Hingson, who spent years working on the issue with the Sierra Club.

Everything the Park Service tried to do got watered down, Hingson said. Years of negotiation led to a complex system of flight zones, flight caps, the phasing in of “quieter technology,” studies of the visitor experience. The Park Service said the Canyon was getting noisier, not quieter, and the tour industry complained that it needed to grow.

“There was a lot of stalling and maneuvering, and no one was on time,” Hingson said.

For years, most flights flew out of Tusayan, just a few miles from the South Rim of the Canyon. But the major players in the industry had operations out of Las Vegas as well.




The Vegas Connection

In the late 1990s, Las Vegas entrepreneur David Jin approached the Hualapai tribe with an idea: the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass walkway that looked down into the Canyon.

The tribe had an unemployment rate of 50 to 65 percent, according to an FAA analysis, and was looking for ways to boost its economy. Jin had a company that brought tourists from Asia to the U.S. His plan was to funnel those tourists from Las Vegas to the Hualapai Reservation.

Air tour companies were also approaching the tribe around this time. The tribe had made federally-funded airport renovations and resurfaced its airport runway in 1997, and the tour companies started flying to the reservation, located on the South Rim of the Canyon, out of Las Vegas.

The FAA was aware of the growing number of flights over Hualapai lands but was reluctant to limit them. The agency reasoned that the federal government had a trust obligation to Indian tribes. In March of 2003, the Supreme Court upheld what became known as the Hualapai exception. The western Grand Canyon was wide open for tour operators.

About six months later, the pilot known as Kamikaze crashed his helicopter. The crash led to major reforms within the industry, but critics said it also showed efforts to bring back safety, and quiet, to the Canyon were failing. Among the reforms that Sundance adopted were on-flight videos, closer pilot supervision and a zero-tolerance policy.

“We know that safety is the most important component of a great experience; it’s our number one value and everything we do goes through our safety filter,” Christina Ward, a spokeswoman for Sundance Helicopters, said in an e-mail.

The number of crashes has dropped sharply, though industry watchdogs say there is room for improvement. 

Gary C. Robb, a helicopter crash lawyer from Kansas City, Missouri, said helicopter tours are "certainly safer than they were 20 years ago.” Robb said he would like to see someone besides the pilot talk to the passengers on the tours, to leave the pilot with nothing to do but fly. He also said that the most popular flight paths tend to be the most scenic.

“In some cases, you have too many helicopters, in too crowded an air space,” he said.

“People in this day and age are looking for a thrill ride," Robb said, "...and there’s nothing wrong with that so long as it is done safely.”

After Kamikaze’s fatal crash, the NTSB noted that thousands of tours flew into Descent Canyon each year, and that the FAA was not familiar with the route at the time. The safety board recommended that the FAA require “periodic en route surveillance” of routes in western Grand Canyon.

It is not clear if the FAA has acted on these recommendations to the NTSB’s satisfaction, but Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA, said in an e-mail that tour operators on the west side of the Canyon no longer use Descent Canyon, and that the agency makes hundreds of inspections of Canyon routes each year.

The FAA “does not have concerns with the air tour operators in this area,” he wrote.




Unlimited flights, unlimited impacts

In 2007, the Skywalk opened, bringing a new stream of revenue for the Hualapai, which was already making money from tour company landing fees.

While the tour operators increased their west end flights, the Park Service kept pushing for more quiet in the park, and after a quarter of a century of negotiation, it appeared to be making progress. 

In 2012, the Park Service was finishing up an Environmental Impact Statement more than a thousand pages long that had cost taxpayers about $6 million. Comments in the EIS show the Park Service faced pressure from the FAA and the tour industry, local politicians and some congressmen. By this time, the Park Service estimated, the air tour industry was generating more than $200 million in gross revenue.

As the agency got ready to cap flights out of the South Rim, it expressed concern over flights on the west side of the park.

The Park Service said the Hualapai exception was supposed to be temporary, that “unlimited flights mean essentially unlimited impacts,” and “the limits would be revisited at a later date.” 

Just before the Park Service was to release its EIS, which Hingson said would have led to new regulations, McCain inserted language into a transportation bill that ended the negotiations and the proposed flight caps. The EIS was never finalized or made public, though it is possible to see it through a public records request.

"This legislation thwarts a recent Obama administration proposal ... which would have killed hundreds of tourism jobs," McCain said in a statement at the time.

"That plan was deeply flawed and would have severely diminished a unique sightseeing experience. Fortunately, this provision ensures that visitors who might otherwise be unable to explore the Grand Canyon, particularly the elderly, disabled and our nation's wounded warriors, will be able to continue to enjoy the Canyon in one of the most unique ways possible."

Two years later, McCain hailed another agreement, to provide incentives for tour operators to use quieter technology in their aircraft, a move seen as a way to avoid cutting flights.

“This is a major step forward for promoting tourism jobs in northern Arizona and enhancing the soundscape at Grand Canyon National Park,” McCain said in a statement in 2014. 

"These added flights will support tourism opportunities while placing Grand Canyon National Park on a path to achieve the goal I established in the 2012 Highway Bill that all air tour aircraft be equipped with quiet technology within the next 15 years.”

McCain's moves frustrated some conservationists, who pointed out that Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters owner Elling Halvorson had donated generously to McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. Halvorson and his family have donated more than $105,000 to McCain over the years, according to the Federal Election Commission.

In the meantime, the Skywalk had become extremely popular with Las Vegas tourists; Jin and the tribe were soon locked in a legal battle. Court records show the Canyon was becoming a lucrative business. 

A member of the Grand Canyon Resort Corporation board, which manages the tribe's tourism operations, testified that “the accounting system failed from the outset because of ‘too much business.’ " 

The accountants, he testified, explained the system was set up to handle $6 million to $7 million in revenues but the Skywalk was on the verge of receiving $30 million to $50 million in business. In the days after the Skywalk opened, tribal employees could not count the cash fast enough. They stuffed hundreds of bills into envelopes for haphazard safekeeping. Tribal employees lost thousands of dollars to theft.




Helicopter Alley: The Canyon roars

For years, Rich Rudow has walked remote and silent places in the Canyon, an explorer who has watched development encroach on the edges of the abyss.

He remembers a series of trips into the Grand Canyon and how each one grew louder than the last. 

On one rafting trip down the Colorado River, across from Hualapai lands, the Canyon sounded like a war zone. By the time the trip was over he had given the stretch of river a name: Helicopter Alley, also known as Good Morning Vietnam.

Kevin Fedarko, author of “The Emerald Mile,” said the Hualapai operate one of the busiest heliports in the world, with hundreds of helicopters coming and going in a day.

“It was a helicopter a day and then it was two. … and now it’s a helicopter a minute,” said river guide Tom Martin.

“I think the tribe can make a living,” Martin said. “But when the tribe’s activities start impacting the neighbors, and their neighbor happens to be a national park, people sit up and pay attention.”

On the North Rim, the Canyon is a national park, technically managed as wilderness. But helicopters frequently stray over the North Rim, which may be a violation of the Wilderness Act, Rudow said. Boats roar up river for about a mile and float back down.

In February, Fedarko and Rudow and some friends checked into a Vegas hotel and took a helicopter trip to see what it was like. That night, they wondered: Is this an appropriate use of a national park? How did it come to this? 

National parks were created shortly after American Indian tribes were placed on reservations. Once the tribes were removed, American attitudes toward wilderness began to change, Roderick Nash writes in “Wilderness and the American Mind.” America’s system of preservation took a while to sort itself out, and the system is not perfect, but national parks and other public lands remain popular to this day.

Federal law requires that the Park Service make parks accessible to the public and protect them for future generations. Those goals can be at odds with each other, and for years, the agency has maintained a balancing act, limiting development on park lands while watching visitation rise. Today the North and South Rims draw about 5 million visitors a year.

Just about everything in the park has a limit — overnight hikes, mule rides, river trips, hotel stays and campsites. The only thing the park does not limit are park entries and day hikes.

While the park grew, the tribes that were kicked out of their homes struggled to find an economic foothold. The Hualapai, Navajo and Havasupai still live in and around the Canyon, and “their story is intimately woven into the landscape itself,” Fedarko said. The tribes keep looking for ways “to elevate themselves economically,” he said, and have begun to look at tourism as an opportunity to do that — “why shouldn’t they?”




Conservationists say the question isn’t should the tribes make a living, but how? Developers aren’t waiting for the answer. They are moving in, without the Park Service as a gatekeeper. They are not concerning themselves with park resources, water supplies, future generations or silence in the Canyon. Their only obligation is to their shareholders, Rudow said, “and that’s the problem.”

The Navajo Nation is bitterly divided over the Grand Canyon Escalade, a proposal to build a gondola on the east side of the Canyon. Some Navajos are opposed to the project, which would cost the tribe $65 million up front and force cattle and sheep herders off their land. Several Navajo have also said the project, which would be built at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, is not appropriate because the Navajo and several other tribes consider the confluence sacred.

But some tribal members support the Escalade. The tribe is well aware that the Hualapai are making money off the Skywalk. That’s because developers for the proposal are basing their financial projections, in part, on Grand Canyon West traffic. So far, Navajo leaders seem skeptical that the project is the answer to their economic plight, but the bill is still technically alive in the Navajo Nation Council.

Rudow said Grand Canyon West has established a precedent, and if the Escalade fails, it’s only a matter of time before another developer comes along with another project, or the same developer comes back with another proposal. 

Dawnielle Tehama, former marketing director for the Hualapai, said it’s possible for tribes to be good stewards of the land and have tourism, but the Hualapai did not concern themselves with Canyon silence or even flight safety when she worked there. She said a lack of transparency, internal bickering, instability and poor accounting made it difficult to work with the tribe.

“Half the board meetings are closed. … There’s a lot going on behind closed doors.” Tehama said “there are a few tribal members that have the best interest of the Hualapai people at heart,” but tribal politics have made it difficult for them to get anything done.

“You’re dealing with a tribe that uses sovereign immunity like a sword, rather than a shield, as it should be,” she said.

“They’re not looking at the big picture. They’re not looking at environmental quality,” she said.

"Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk provide steady employment and opportunity for more than 1,000 employees, including many tribal members," the Hualapai tribe's chairman, Dr. Damon R. Clarke, said in a written statement. "Revenues flow into the local economies, providing a greater standard of living for our people, and helping to fund services for our elders, children and others in need of support.

"The Hualapai Tribe is proud to share the Grand Canyon with the world. We respect and care for this natural treasure each day, in the manner expected from Indigenous peoples.”




Las Vegas East?

Rudow had come to Las Vegas to see for himself what it’s like to fly over the abyss, step onto a boat, roar upstream, float back down and fly up to the Skywalk, a key attraction at Grand Canyon West.

He said he understood the Hualapai were trying to develop their economy.

“I don’t object to them having some development out there at all," he said. "It’s their land. But I do object to the helicopters.

“Right now you have a situation where the only loser is the park,” he said. "The park, and the American people.”

Last year, Arizona Sens. McCain and Jeff Flake introduced a bill authorizing more than $181 million to fund a project that would allow the Hualapai to pump more than 3 million gallons out of the Colorado River per day. The bill, recently reintroduced, would settle a long-standing claim with the tribe and help build pipelines and other infrastructure. 

The water in the settlement, measured at daily use, is about three times the amount Grand Canyon Village uses in peak times on the heavily trafficked South Rim, Rudow said.

“They could build hotels, casinos, and they could have 15 million visitors a year,” he said.

The Park Service also noted in its flight EIS that the Hualapai have also considered a gondola ride to the bottom of the Canyon. That’s probably not a serious consideration now, but the possibilities for unfettered development, backed by Las Vegas money and tourism, have alarmed conservationists. 

Clarke, the tribal chairman, said the Hualapai are most concerned about providing water for the people who live on the remote reservation and for the existing businesses, including a hotel and the Skywalk.

"While the tribe is presently able to serve our principal residential community, Peach Springs, with groundwater, that groundwater is a depletable resource, and well levels on the reservation are dropping," he told the Senate Indian Affairs committee last year during hearings on the water settlement.

The tribe is unable to provide housing for employees of the tourist businesses because the site is not served by reliable water sources, Clarke said. 

Further, he told the committee, the Hualapai possess few natural resources that would support agriculture or other industries, but their home on the Grand Canyon puts the tribe in a unique position to build a self-sustaining economy.

"The tribe should be encouraged and supported in its efforts to develop the resources and economic opportunities that it has," Clarke said during the hearing. "We have done everything possible to provide jobs and income to our people in order to lift them out of poverty."

Rudow was committed to seeing for himself what was happening on the West Rim. Settled into a hotel room in Las Vegas, he bought his ticket and, early the next morning, took the flight.

By mid-afternoon he was back at the hotel. Later, over drinks, he will sum it up like this: 

“I was horrified by the Skywalk experience.” He tried to walk away from the group to look at the Canyon and was herded back for a photo, a tourist on an assembly line.

Rudow said until someone challenges the status quo, nothing will change, and if nothing changes, Las Vegas, which sees about 43 million visitors annually, will continue to funnel tourists to the Canyon. Few of them are likely to experience the Canyon’s silence, or dark skies, to walk along the Rim, take a photo at sunset.

“Grand Canyon West is really not going to be Grand Canyon any more," he said. "It’s going to be Las Vegas East.”

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