Money and Democracy

Published — December 26, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

McCain changes tune on support for Grand Canyon air tours

A tour helicopter lifts off inside the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Joe Cavaretta/AP

Tour operator a major campaign supporter


A quarter century has elapsed since Sen. John McCain championed a new law to restore “natural quiet” in the majestic Grand Canyon where the clatter of choppers and small planes reverberated as they ferried sightseers over the national park.

Vowing to curtail air traffic that was both noisy and that had seen fatal collisions, the Arizona Republican said that parks regulate dogs, campfires and trail and river use, and “I see no reason why overflights should be any exception to the rule.”

The Grand Canyon, he proclaimed, “does not exist for anyone’s financial benefit.”

Today, however, McCain defends air tourism and its operators — including one of his biggest campaign backers — against what he sees as overzealous restrictions that the National Park Service is planning under that 1987 law.

Following years of squabbling and litigation, the agency is finalizing rules on when and where the flights can go, including a cap on daily traffic. McCain believes the restrictions, which are outlined by the agency in a long-awaited environmental report, could “cripple” air tourism and jeopardize more than 1,100 jobs.

His view is shared by air tour companies that once saw McCain as their nemesis. His stance has deepened a divide between McCain and environmental groups who long considered him an ally and who are pushing the Park Service to crack down even more.

Hard hit under the proposed rules would be the Grand Canyon’s biggest operator of airplane and helicopter sightseeing, Elling Halvorson, a McCain political supporter who raised more than $100,000 for McCain’s 2008 White House bid. Halvorson and his wife directly contributed $71,400 to McCain’s campaigns since 1991, according to Federal Election Commission records, including $58,500 to national Republican Party efforts for him in the 2008 presidential race.

He donated $4,800 to McCain’s 2010 re-election victory.

Canyon air tours big business

Tour companies, including Halvorson’s, together fly more than 420,000 aerial sightseers a year above the majestic canyon. They bristle at the Park Service’s new proposed rules, complaining that under interim restrictions, they’ve reached the agency’s threshold definition of natural quiet, and voluntarily have spent millions of dollars on noise-reducing technology for some aircraft.

Park officials propose extending daily quiet to 67 percent of the park, up from the currently achieved 53 percent, to improve the audio and visual experience for hikers and visitors on the ground and to protect sensitive wildlife. They say their earlier threshold of 50 percent was a minimum goal, not an ideal endpoint. They are reviewing the public comments, and anticipate a final plan in March. The Federal Aviation Administration is to implement the new rules, barring any safety concerns.

Responding to the proposals, McCain was the lead signer on a letter with five House members, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., seeking mercy for air tourism, “at a time that our states desperately need this economic activity.”

“The viability of an industry that fuels our regional economy and drives tourism by showcasing one of America’s most precious landmarks, and the retention of the quality jobs that go with it, should not be taken lightly by our federal government,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter that dovetailed with industry concerns.

They said park officials underestimated the likely financial loss to tour companies, and that interim rules, plus quiet technology that some companies have incorporated, have significantly reduced noise.

McCain already had sought to short-circuit the protracted and acrimonious rulemaking process by introducing unsuccessful Senate legislation both last year and this year that would have established “natural quiet” as the level already achieved.

“He went from being a hero on this issue to someone that we’ve had to strongly oppose; and we have aggressively lobbied against this bad horrible amendment he’s introduced in the last couple of years,” said Bryan Faehner, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association. Back in 2001, the group gave McCain an award for his leadership on limiting air tours, considering him not only instrumental but “a visionary in some ways to regulate air tours over the park and allow for visitors to experience the sounds of nature,” said Faehner.

McCain’s spokesman Brian Rogers said in an email that the senator is proud of his stewardship of the canyon. “Any insinuation that Senator McCain has abandoned his staunch support for the Grand Canyon over his 28-year service in Congress is completely unfounded and ridiculous,” he said.

Tours a ‘unique service’

He declined to answer questions about McCain’s relationship with Halvorson, but said the senator “met with every stakeholder involved with the preservation of this national treasure.”

McCain’s bottom line: Sightseeing tours “shouldn’t be excessively restricted as they provide a unique service for visitors who aren’t physically able to experience the Canyon any other way,” Rogers said. As well, the tours “shouldn’t disproportionately compromise the quality of Arizona’s most breathtaking natural landmark.”

The 95-year-old mandate of the Park Service is to protect the nation’s most precious natural resources, not commercial activities, environmentalists complain. Similarly, when McCain co-sponsored the 1987 law in the Senate and emphasized that he welcomed the economic benefits of air tourism, he added, “When it comes to a choice between the interests of our park system and those who profit from it, without a doubt the interests of the land must come first.”

Protecting air tour companies was not a priority at that time, according to former Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., the House sponsor of the Grand Canyon bill, which also restricted flights at Yosemite National Park and Haleakala in Hawaii.

“They were violating the air space of the parks for commercial gain,” Coelho said. “Basically everyone agreed they were violating the intent of the original designation of the parks.”

Thus, environmental groups object to the Park Service including an “economically viable and safe air tour industry,” as an objective in its Grand Canyon plan.

The agency, however, believes it is keeping faith with the 1987 law as well as the 1916 Organic Act that created the national park system, while seeking a balanced solution.

“Our mission is very different than guaranteeing that the air tour industry makes a huge profit. Our mission is to put the preservation of natural resources over any other objective,” said Mary Killeen, chief of planning and compliance at the 1.2-million-acre Grand Canyon National Park.

Flight cap proposed

The agency wants to cap aerial tours at 364 a day, provide a quiet hour before sunset and another after dawn, and require aircraft to be outfitted with quiet technology within 10 years. Total tours would be limited to 65,000 flights a year, down from the current limit of 95,000 — a number the companies have never approached, according to government data.

A blistering critique from Halvorson’s companies — Papillon Airways, Air Grand Canyon and Grand Canyon Airlines — submitted together with another operator, Maverick Airstar, attacks the proposals as callous and arbitrary. Maverick Airstar spent $80,000 lobbying Congress on Grand Canyon overflights since 2009, disclosure records show.

The two operators say the proposed rules would produce only negligible quiet, and penalize the sightseeing companies for noise coming from higher-elevation jet traffic. It would cost them an 18 percent revenue loss, or $18.5 million, their analysts say, although Park Service analysis projects only a 9 percent loss for all flight companies combined, including the Halvorson and Maverick companies that represent about 80 percent of canyon tours. Tourists pay from $100 to around $400 for an aerial tour depending on the origination of the flight.

The Park Service “is chasing an illusory air tour noise problem that does not need fixing,” the flight companies’ lawyers wrote to the Park Service.

Elling Halvorson in an email from a spokesman affirmed his longstanding support for McCain. He said the senator is “a longtime supporter of the air tour industry, and his respect and support for the Grand Canyon has never wavered.”

In fact, flight companies and their United States Air Tour Association tangled with McCain for years. A decade after enacting the 1987 Grand Canyon law, he chastised flight companies for having complained that it would devastate their business.

“In fact their business quadrupled over the intervening ten years,” he said at a hearing on his subsequent bill to regulate sightseeing above other parks. “The American people in my view deserve the right to enjoy a national park and not have it resemble Sky Harbor Airport or McCarren Airport in Las Vegas. And that’s what it was like at the Grand Canyon.”

The Air Tour Association, including Halvorson, worked to woo McCain in the 1990s, especially as he developed the new legislation to limit flights at other parks.

Banging on the McCain door

The group’s newsletters reported that fundraising contributions helped win access to McCain and other members of Congress who also were vigorously lobbied by environmental groups.

“We will continue to bang on the McCain door hoping someday to get inside his head with our rational appeals,” the group’s lobbyist, James Santini, wrote in the association’s February 1998 newsletter.

At a 1998 fund-raising dinner, the group’s president made his case, “with the senator acknowledging the value of the air tour industry and being genuinely appreciate [sic] of USATA’s participation in the event.”

Members then attended an Arizona fundraiser to “reinforce the fact that the industry was willing to support him under the right conditions,” the USATA newsletter reported.

The association called it a “dramatic, near miraculous turn of events,” when McCain incorporated some of their concerns in his 1998 bill covering air tours at other parks. They praised him for removing provisions that favored Park Service authority over the Federal Aviation Administration.

The association also devoted more than $81,000 to lobbying members of Congress and federal agencies on behalf of the air tour companies in the last dozen years, including, $31,000 so far this year, federal disclosure records show.

McCain has long urged government incentives for quiet technology on tour aircraft. In the amendment he introduced last year, with co-sponsors Harry Reid, D-Nev., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John Ensign, R-Nev., he would have required such technology on aircraft in 10 years.

The measure he submitted this year, however, dropped that provision.

McCain’s spokesman Rogers said the 2010 measure would have brought finality to the long delayed rulemaking process. By the time he introduced his measure this year, however, that logjam had been unclogged with the publication of the Park Service environmental report.

In the current public comment period, the Park Service is taking heat for its proposals not only from the air tour industry but at the other end of the spectrum from environmental advocates who want fewer flights permitted. Both sides cite laws and policy arguments to back their cases, so whatever the administration’s final decision, the battle may not end there.

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