Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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New rules planned for air tours of the Grand Canyon would not affect commercial aircraft flying over the park, under a measure approved by the Senate.

A deal brokered by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., clears the way for the National Park Service to develop rules that set new limits on the number of sightseeing flights over the canyon while reducing noise pollution. The measure was included in a broad transportation bill approved Wednesday by the Senate.

McCain and Reid said they were concerned that passenger jets flying high above the park on the way to Las Vegas and other airports could be negatively affected by the Park Service plan, which is intended to increase the number of air tours over the Grand Canyon while at the same time making the environment quieter.

As iWatch News reported last year, McCain was originally a champion of decreasing noisy air traffic over the Grand Canyon. In 1987, he co-sponsored a Senate bill to restore “natural quiet,” saying, “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.”

Fast-forward to yesterday’s Senate decision, when McCain opposed the overall plan for noise reduction, which he said could “decimate” air tours through unfair noise restrictions. McCain said the plan could eliminate hundreds of tourism jobs and cause tour operators to lose as much as $18 million in the first year alone.

“Air tours provide a unique sightseeing experience for people who might otherwise not be able to visit the Grand Canyon, particularly the elderly and the disabled,” the Arizona senator said.

A draft plan released last year would allow 65,000 flights a year — an increase of about 17,000 over 2010 figures— and limit daily air tours to 364, an increase of 50 over current levels.

Nearly 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, and tour agencies do a brisk business in offering helicopter and airplane flights over the park.

But hikers and tourists on the ground have complained that the aircraft noise interferes with the feeling of solitude and overall natural appreciation of the canyon.

The Park Service’s goal is to restore natural quiet to 67 percent of the Grand Canyon for three-fourths of the day or longer, up from 53 percent, a target the tour industry strongly resists.

Environmental groups had opposed an earlier version of the amendment that they said could have undermined the Park Service’s rule-making process. The groups dropped their opposition after the amendment was narrowed to the commercial jet provision.

“While it’s not perfect, it is vastly improved,” said Bryan Faehner, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group that has worked to reduce noise pollution at the Grand Canyon. Last year, Faehner told iWatch News that McCain “… went from being a hero on this issue to someone that we’ve had to strongly oppose.”

The transportation bill now goes to the House.

Original article by Associated Press writer Matthew Daly, with edits by iWatch News.

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