The National Park Service unveiled plans yesterday to restrict tourist flights over 44 percent of the Grand Canyon in a move officials said would balance the interests of time-pressed tourists and solitude-seeking backpackers.
The plan, contained in recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, would create four "flight-free" areas in which planes would have to stay at least 14,500 feet above sea level, or about 7,000 to 8,500 feet above the canyon rim.
The park service also told the FAA it ought to consider moving two high-altitude jet routes to avoid the canyon altogether.
Under a law passed in May, the FAA has 90 days to adopt the recommendations, though it may change them for safety reasons. As required by law, the recommendations call for a ban on all flights below the canyon rim.
Various studies have to be conducted in the next two years and reported to Congress, including assessments of noise levels on the ground and the use of quiet aircraft, officials said.
Tour flights have grown rapidly, although different figures are cited. The park service estimated flights at 50,000 per year, though some members of Congress this spring estimated 296,000 flights a year by about 40 companies.
In June 1986 a collision over the canyon killed 25 people.
William Horn, assistant interior secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, told a news conference: "In this case we dealt with disparate user groups, the hundreds of thousands of flight-seers and those thousands of back country users who are seeking solitude and quiet and thousands of others who just want to stand on the rim and have that unparalled view of the canyon.
"In an egalitarian society it is not government's job to tell one group yes and another group no," Horn said.
"We think this is a good compromise for everybody concerned," said William Penn Mott, director of the National Park Service. "The helicopter operators probably are not going to be very happy about the plan and some environmental groups are going to feel we haven't gone far enough."
The "flight-free" areas would cover 530,000 acres of Grand Canyon National Park, mostly over the eastern half. The four areas would be separated by corridors two to nine miles wide designed so air tour operators could continue to offer trips of 30 minutes and 60 minutes that would give passengers what the service called "unsurpassed scenic vistas."
At the same time, 90 percent of people using the trails of the back country area would be protected from noise, Horn said.
Initial reaction was favorable from environmentalists.
Rob Smith of the Sierra Club said in Phoenix that "some improvements" were needed but the plan for the first time "guarantees that there will be noise-free areas in the canyon and that is something that should have been done long ago."
Ed Norton of the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental group, said in Washington, "I think ultimately you are going to have to limit the number of flights" and impose noise standards on those that remain.
Ben Beach of the Wilderness Society said, "We can live with it . . . . It seems finally to have gotten the tour flights above the rim."
Ron Warren, general manager of Grand Canyon Airlines, operator of one aircraft involved in the June 1986 collision, said he had not seen the recommendations but "if it's what they've previously shown to us, I have no problem with it."
What happens at Grand Canyon "ultimately could apply to all national parks," he said.