State: Navajos seek exemption for Grand Canyon flights

FLAGSTAFF - An American Indian tribe whose reservation borders the Grand Canyon wants to boost its economy by giving tourists an aerial view of the massive gorge.

Nearly 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, and some undoubtedly take a highway that runs through Navajo Nation communities.

Navajo lawmaker Walter Phelps sees potential in that number. He has sponsored legislation in the Tribal Council that asks the Federal Aviation Administration to exempt the tribe from having to obtain allocations that other tour operators need to fly in and around the Grand Canyon, similar to what the Hualapai Tribe has.

"It's an opportunity that Navajo has not expanded into," he said. "My interest is that if the FAA is willing to consider an exemption for Navajo, I know that people will come knocking on our doors, then we can talk tourism, then we can talk development."

The tribe might also have to get the blessing of the National Park Service if it plans on any of the flights crossing over into the park boundaries but not if the tribe keeps tourists on Navajo land that lies in a special flight rules area surrounding the canyon. Navajo officials talked about taking tourists from communities such as Cameron to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, which boasts a wide view of the Grand Canyon. But Phelps said it's too soon to think about possible routes.

The FAA granted the Hualapai Tribe an exemption more than a decade ago after finding that it would suffer adverse economic impacts by regulating flights. The Hualapai reservation borders the western side of Grand Canyon National Park, while the Navajo Nation is to the east.

The difference between Hualapai and Navajo is that the Hualapai Tribe already was operating flights from its reservation that includes a 180-mile stretch of the Grand Canyon outside the park boundaries when Congress mandated that the Park Service and the FAA come up with a way to manage flights over the Grand Canyon. The result was a series of route restrictions, curfews and temporary caps on the number of flights allowed each year.

The Navajo Nation wants its position known before a final plan for overflights is released, which is expected sometime next year. More than 400,000 people take air tours of the Grand Canyon each year, but hikers and tourists on the ground say the aircraft are too noisy.

The Park Service's preferred alternative would allow 8,000 more flights per year over the Grand Canyon for a total of 65,000, and the limit on the number of daily air tours would be set at 364, an increase of 50. Transport flights and those not carrying tourists would be rerouted so they don't fly directly over the canyon, and all aircraft would have to convert to quiet technology over the next 10 years.

The Hualapai Tribe would keep its exemption from annual allocations under all alternatives.

The comment period ended in June with nearly 30,000 comments submitted to the National Park Service. Individual Navajos who live near the confluence of the rivers asked that the Park Service quiet helicopter traffic near their homes, but the tribal government has not submitted comments, said Palma Wilson, deputy superintendent at the Grand Canyon.

"We're moving forward with the final plan and as fast as they can get them in, that's fine," she said.

Phelps said air tours would be of particular benefit to residents on the western side of the reservation who could not make even minor repairs to their homes for decades because of a land dispute with the Hopi Tribe. He said it's no guarantee that the Navajo Nation will get what it wants, "but at least we have to try."

One of his fellow lawmakers, Katherine Benally, was far more optimistic at a meeting last week in Cameron, saying "my little brother is underestimating the Navajo Nation. We're going to comment, demand that they listen."