Oral Argument Heard in Challenge to FAA Decision on Zion National Park Overflight Noise

APRIL 14, 2002

Federal officials should have taken a closer look at the effect of increased air traffic over Zion National Park before approving plans for a new airport in St. George, Utah, two Appeals Court judges say.

The Grand Canyon Trust environmental group last week asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to force the Federal Aviation Administration to perform an environmental impact statement. The FAA had previously decided the new airport would not affect the pristine nature of Zion National Park.

The three-judge panel did not rule on the trust's request, but the judges had pointed criticism for the government's attorney, Ellen Durkee.

Durkee argued that an environmental impact statement is not necessary because there would be only a 2 percent increase in the 240 to 300 daily flights over the park if the new airport is approved. Such a small increase couldn't possibly be the straw that breaks the camel's back, spoiling the pristine nature of the park.

"But that's where you're wrong," Judge David S. Tatel interrupted. "You don't know anything about the camel."

Tatel said the FAA hadn't considered the cumulative impacts of adding traffic to the existing flights. And the noise models used, while relevant for New York City or Washington, don't apply to a park environment.

The National Park Service had also urged the FAA to consider those factors, noted Judge Harry T. Edwards. "There's another government agency standing there with you that says you're completely wrong," Edwards told Durkee. "We can't blind ourselves to that."

The National Park Service has identified Zion National Park as one of nine parks nationally where restoring "natural quiet" is an immediate priority.

A ruling against the FAA could set back work on the new airport by up to two years, said Marc Mortensen, assistant to the St. George city manager. The goal is to complete the airport by 2008.

The existing St. George airport, built atop a mesa, is near capacity and can't accommodate the rapidly growing city. Constraints on air traffic would cost the city an estimated $300 million in business over the next decade, and any expansion of the airport would not meet FAA safety standards, Mortensen said.

Planes taking off from the airport would be above 5,000 feet by the time the crossed into Zion National Park, about 50 miles east of the city. At that elevation they would make very little noise on the ground, Mortensen said.

The Grand Canyon Trust has another lawsuit regarding overflights at Grand Canyon National Park.

Source: Associated Press