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Natural Wonders

The Sounds of the Grand Canyon

Expect a quite trip, filled with moments of introspective thought, but at times the silence might be interrupted by a helicopter tour.

Glen Himberg knows a thing or two about silence in the Grand Canyon. A prolific boatman, Himberg has spent hundreds of hours surrounded by overwhelming quietness while rafting the Colorado River. A few years back while participating on a multi-week trip, Himberg recalls not hearing any loud helicopters. “It was winter and of course the tourists weren’t out in full force,” Himberg makes sure to point out. But he did come across a few motorized boats and though he says the boats loud motors weren’t too big of a deal he does wish they were a bit nicer to him and his trip. “Then again we were voted the most obnoxious trip on the river,” Himberg says with a laugh. “So I can’t get too mad at them. They were actually quite nice now that I think about it.”

Himberg’s experience is like many who visit Grand Canyon National Park. His trip was quiet, filled with moments of introspective thought, but at times the silence would be interrupted by some of mans more aggressive methods of transportation. “One thing I think most people need to remember about the canyon is that the canyon is really quite big,” Himberg likes to explain. “It’s hard to focus on a helicopter flying overhead when you’re at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. As a boatman my primary focus was the river so I wasn’t usually looking up trying to spot helicopters. When you’re down at the bottom of the canyon it’s a long way up to the top so I’m sure I missed a few here and there.”

Mapping Natural Sound

Within the past decade the National Park Service has been aggressively collecting, monitoring and documenting their parks’ natural soundscape. A natural soundscape is defined as “the natural ambient sound level of the park.” Scientists began to monitor the Grand Canyon’s natural soundscape in 2003 by placing microphones and sound meters throughout various places in the park. The rangers made sure to capture sound in all four seasons to put together a yearlong diagram of noise and noise pollution. One of the loudest man made aspects of the park is a helicopter and plane tour throughout the Park’s landscape.

It might be hard to imagine today, but small planes have been providing visitors with an aerial view of the Grand Canyon before the canyon was a National Park. In February 1919, the first air tour was officially recorded and above ground tourism was born.

Since 1919 visitors to the Grand Canyon have flocked to air tours inversely creating a steady market for tour companies throughout the area. “When people fly with us they gain a lot more exposure to the canyon than along a narrow path along the rim,” John Buch, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Maverick Helicopters said. “It’s one thing to see the canyon from the rim, but when you’re 4,000-feet up it’s possible to really see the size and magnitude of the canyon.”

But not everyone has welcomed the helicopter tours over the years. In 1975 the Grand Canyon Park Enlargement act was established to help focus on protecting the natural soundscape of the park. Up until this point there was little regulation and air tours were flying around the park and under the rim in certain spots. Then in 1987, restrictions were enforced through the National Parks Overnights act. Air traffic was restricted below 14,500 feet and several no-fly zones were constructed. Commercial flights were also regulated and special routes were designed for air tour operators.

“The Park Service is looking to maintain quietness in 75 percent of the park 50 percent of the time,” Buch explains. “But sometimes it seems like they want it to be quiet 65 percent of the time and sometimes even more. We are working hard to comply, but we still also want to get people up in the air.”

The debate can rage on for hours. “When my husband and I backpacked into Havasupai the helicopters were pretty disturbing,” California resident Emily Adams said. “I just felt they were really noisy in such a beautiful place.”

Though there is no end in sight to the constant push and pull between the National Park service and helicopter tours there is one benefit to air travel that can’t go overlooked.

“One of the biggest benefits of helicopter tours is we can take handicap people up and they can experience the canyon beyond what they typically have access to on the rim. It might be noisy for some, but it’s an important part of what we do.”