(Photo: Peter McBride)
The Greatest Show on Earth

300 Flights Through the Grand Canyon’s Helicopter Alley

Every day, hundreds of helicopters pass through the lower canyon from the Hualapai Reservation. Is Grand Canyon West turning into “Las Vegas East” and ruining the park’s wilderness? Or is it saving a Native American tribe?

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Western Grand Canyon is an unforgiving, feral landscape. There are no trails, and water is dangerously scarce. It is filled with uncharted slot canyons, flesh-seeking cactus, perilous drop-offs and expansive views. For Rich Rudow, an obsessive cross-country explorer, this part of Grand Canyon National Park would be paradise if it weren’t for the steady drone overhead. He says sometimes the mechanical hum heard from the canyon rim is as faint as a bumblebee. But closer to the river, the loud noise can approach a rock-concert decibel level and drive a wilderness-loving hiker or river runner mad.

On average, there are more than 300 helicopter landings each day at the airport at Grand Canyon West, as the area is called, and along a three-mile stretch of the Colorado River on the Hualapai Reservation bordering the national park. Hikers and river runners passing through the area describe a “war zone,” with one helicopter landing about every five minutes for eight hours straight.

Rudow recalls a “magical moment” during a trip in October 2016 when the noise stopped and he got a taste of what the place was like before the chopper frenzy. After a long day of hiking, Rudow and two others were about to set up camp on the Sanup Plateau, located on the canyon’s North Rim across from the helicopter landing pads. A gray ceiling of clouds suddenly parted and the sun broke through, casting the plateau’s prairie grasses and cholla in an ethereal golden light. “It was dusk, so the helicopters were finally gone for the day,” Rudow says. “And all the birds and insects started singing at once. It was a massive symphony of sound, an incredible uprising of life that we did not know was there because of the constant noise.”

The nonstop daytime air traffic is part of a booming tourism enterprise that has lifted a struggling 2,400-person Native American tribe out of poverty. In the process, however, national park wilderness advocates like Rudow argue the helicopter-driven business is destroying the most precious part of an irreplaceable crown jewel.

But who is intruding on whom is a matter of heated debate.

Hualapai tribal chairperson Damon Clarke has little patience for critics like Rudow. “If we listened to everyone about the impacts of Grand Canyon West, then we would remain undeveloped. We would be kept down,” Clarke says. “We are finally able to make a living, and people are poking fun at us.”

Hikers and river runners passing through the area describe a “war zone,” with one helicopter landing about every five minutes for eight hours straight.

As an indigenous tribe of Grand Canyon, the Hualapai once called an area of approximately 5 million acres home. They hunted and farmed across a large swath of plateau lands in northern Arizona, as well as on the South and West Rims of Grand Canyon. The Colorado River is the tribe’s spiritual touchstone, what they call their ha’yidada, or backbone. In 1883, the Hualapai were forced onto a 1 million–acre reservation, which the U.S. government did not mind signing over because it lacked lucrative natural resources like minerals, timber, or water. But it did include 100 miles of front-row seating to Grand Canyon’s western rim, with stunning views of the Colorado River 4,000 feet below.

When the Hualapai established Grand Canyon West in 1988, the destination was just a bladed-dirt airstrip with a road that led to the West Rim overlook of Guano Point. For anyone with the guts to land there, tribal members would pick them up and take them to the point where they shared stories and ate lunch. In the 1990s, the then-1,500-member tribe had an unemployment rate hovering around 60 percent. Tourism was their best hope for economic development on a reservation so remote that it was 50 miles from the nearest grocery store. To help the tribe with its nascent business, the Federal Aviation Administration paved the runway in 1997 and made other improvements to the airport. Papillon, one of the largest air tour companies in the country, established a base as soon as the asphalt was dry, and other companies quickly followed.

Meanwhile, the 1987 National Park Overflights Act was in the process of being implemented in Grand Canyon National Park. After a midair collision over Grand Canyon the previous year, the new law was intended to improve safety regulations and also mandated “substantial restoration of natural quiet” in the national park. Once regulations were complete, air tours would be restricted to a limited number of flights and paths over the park and required to stay thousands of feet above the canyon rim.

In addition to being a sovereign nation with the freedom to do whatever it wanted on reservation land, another thing that worked in the tribe’s favor was a decision made in April 2000 called the “Hualapai exception.” As the National Park Service and the FAA developed flight rules for the Grand Canyon region, the Hualapai argued that restricting flights at Grand Canyon West would pose an economic hardship to the tribe. At the time, more than one-third of households on the reservation lived below the poverty level. The temporary exception granted by the FAA allowed an unlimited number of helicopter flights at Grand Canyon West. And as Papillon and other air tour companies would soon discover, there was an ever-increasing demand for faster, more exciting ways to see Grand Canyon.

“What put Grand Canyon West on the map was that the Hualapai had the foresight to realize they were across from the national park and could allow helicopters to land near the boundary,” says Robert Graff, vice president of marketing for Papillon. “At the West Rim, you can descend 3,500 feet and land right on the banks of the Colorado River.”

The open season for air tours dovetailed nicely with the completion in 2007 of the glass cantilever Skywalk bridge that juts 70 feet over the West Rim’s Eagle Point. The bridge itself was controversial for how it used Grand Canyon as the site of a thrill-seeking experience more commonly associated with amusement parks.

With the Skywalk as its anchor attraction, Grand Canyon West has rapidly expanded its tourist offerings over the past decade. There is now a restaurant and visitor center next to the Skywalk, along with a western-themed town and guest cabins, guided whitewater rafting and a zip line strung over a side canyon. But the biggest draws after the Skywalk are the elevator-like rim-to-river helicopters that transport visitors to water’s edge, where motorized pontoon boats wait to take passengers upriver into the national park for a 15-to-20-minute ride.

Hualapai chairperson Clarke says the tribe’s health department, senior programs, EMS, and partial college scholarships are all subsidized by Grand Canyon West revenues. “We currently have 85 students going to college,” he says. “That is far more than ever before.”

Grand Canyon West has proven hugely successful. Grand Canyon Resort Corporation, which owns the development, earned $110 million in gross revenue in 2017. Thirty years ago, there were virtually zero visitors; in the past three years, there have been more than 1 million annually. While 83 percent of the 4.5 million annual visitors to the national park are from the United States, less than 50 percent of Grand Canyon West visitors are domestic travelers. Instead, most are international tourists—many visiting from China—who add a helicopter day trip as part of their vacation to Las Vegas, where the $300 to $550 rides are heavily marketed.

“Grand Canyon West has opened up a new market,” Graff says. “It allows Vegas tourists with very limited time to still see one of the seven wonders of the natural world.”

Rudow calls the area “Las Vegas East” and says it’s an assault not only on Grand Canyon National Park but also on the American values that created the National Park System and the Wilderness Act. “When they get dropped off in Grand Canyon West, they don’t understand that we have these ideals in America around protecting certain places to keep them wild,” he says. Rudow and other environmentalists argue that the Hualapai exception on flight numbers should be revisited since Grand Canyon West is now a thriving enterprise.

Of the $110 million earned by Grand Canyon West last year, $48.7 million was distributed to the tribe. According to a handout given to tribal members at Grand Canyon Resort Corporation’s annual shareholder meeting on March 29, 2018, $6.2 million was disbursed to individual tribal members. (Two members interviewed for this story reported getting a $2,500 check last year at Christmas.) The remainder of the $48.7 million went to the tribal government. Hualapai chairperson Clarke says the tribe’s health department, senior programs, EMS, and partial college scholarships are all subsidized by Grand Canyon West revenues. “We currently have 85 students going to college,” he says. “That is far more than ever before.”

But Clarke says the biggest impact from Grand Canyon West is simply that there are jobs on the reservation. Grand Canyon West employs more than 800 people, and 28 percent are Hualapai, according to the Grand Canyon Resort Corporation annual report. With 1,400 tribal members living on the reservation, the assumption now is that anyone who needs a job has one.

Not all tribal members are content with the new status quo, however. “Employment opportunities at Grand Canyon West have been good for the tribe, but we have many of the same problems as before—diabetes, suicide, crime, and there’s no new homes being built,” says Ted Quasula, a tribal member who lives off the reservation because of the lack of housing. “With all this money, why don’t we have a library and a tutor for every kid? We should be providing them with a free college education.” Quasula said the tribe needs to set its sights higher and have its own members become lawyers, doctors, nurses, schoolteachers, and engineers who serve the reservation. Meanwhile, most of the employment opportunities at Grand Canyon West are minimum-wage service jobs.

For John, a tribal member who works at Grand Canyon West and did not want his real name to be used for fear of losing his job, there is a certain swagger that comes from being part of something commercially successful. “We took a lesson from the playbook of western society,” he says. “We were poor for such a long time. Now we can go into Kingman to shop and not feel as much racism. Having money is instilling a sense of pride in the tribe.”

But John is aware of the environmental tradeoffs and has “mixed feelings” about the helicopter noise and how it is negatively impacting national park visitors. He reasons, however, that Grand Canyon river runners have been able to enjoy a wilderness experience for 260 miles down the Colorado, and it is only the last 15 to 20 miles of the trip that are affected by the area known as “helicopter alley.”

“I tell them, ‘I’m sorry we ruined your serenity,’” says John. “They’ve been on this escape from their life for two or three weeks, and it’s like, ‘Welcome back to your world.’”

Lead Photo: Peter McBride

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