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The Power of Place and the Importance of Natural Quiet At Grand Canyon National Park
by Jim McCarthy


There are special places in natural and built environments that have intense psychological power. Consciously and subconsciously, visitors perceive these powers through all their senses. When intrusions interfere with these sensory inputs, the visitors' focus on the power of these places blurs.

The Grand Canyon is one of the most quiet national parks, but this natural quiet is being compromised. Although air tour riders may not be aware of it, they compromise the power of the Grand Canyon. They not only do it to themselves, they do it to visitors who come to the Canyon specifically for contemplative recreation.

Experiencing the Grand Canyon

I still have the bird book my father bought me during our first visit to the Grand Canyon. Like most Canyon visitors, we stayed on the safe side of the rim, and the visit was brief. Although I was but 13 years old, I felt a power emanating from the magnificent abyss. I don't remember the specifics of what I experienced, only the power.

I remember more detail from my first trek below the rim. It was a decade later and I was older. The first thing I remember was the visual grandeur. I don't have to tell you of it; you have been there or have seen the magnificent photographs.

But there was more. There was the subtle odor of pine trees near the rim. There was the feel of pitch between my fingers after I touched the amber flow of a pine tree. I remember the feel and sound of my fingernail rubbing across the layered rock. I recall a cool breeze across my face and the smell of desert near the bottom. I think of the canyon wren sound. Wherever I hear the cascading call of a canyon wren, it takes me back to my first hike at the Grand Canyon.

After hiking the popular trails, I rowed the river. I remember the energy of the rapids and the still water behind the rapids. I appreciated the intense and subtle sounds of the water. The views were awe inspiring.

I studied air tour noise at the Grand Canyon for my masters thesis. Per the recommendation of my thesis committee, I took a helicopter ride over the Canyon. The view was great. The sound of the engine and rotors was intense but it was partially masked by the music piped into our ear muffs. Rather than hearing natural sounds, I heard the themes from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Chariots of Fire. What the ride lacked was the power of the Grand Canyon. The helicopter ride was exciting but I had experienced exciting rides at Disneyland.

Of my varied experiences at the Canyon, I can say that they were all good. But the slower and quieter modes, including just standing at the rim, let me better experience the true nature of the place.

The Power of Place

There is a reason we build churches, cathedrals, and synagogues. There is a reason architects designed an impressive Federal Capitol building, sited it on a hill, and a reason the Lincoln Memorial faces the Capitol building directly across an impressive reflecting pool. They designed these places to inspire, to be special places set apart from the normal and the routine. The power of these places brings our consciousness to another level. Joseph Campbell gave this example:

"I walk off Fifty-first Street and Fifth Avenue into St. Patrick's Cathedral. I've left a very busy city and one of the most economically inspired cities on the planet. I walk into the cathedral, and everything around me speaks of spiritual mysteries. ... The stained glass windows, which bring another atmosphere in. My consciousness has been brought up onto another level altogether, and I am on a different platform. And then I walk out, and I'm back on the level of the street again." (Flowers 1988, 15).

Joseph Campbell studied how the mystique of a place transforms its visitors. The example here studies a built form, but natural environments can also take our consciousness to another level. The architecture of the Grand Canyon is as inspiring as any built form.

These special natural and built places possess what might be called the power of place. People seek solitude and inspiration at the Grand Canyon because it is one of several places on earth that have the power of place.

Feeling the Grand Canyon's Power of Place

Experiencing the Grand Canyon is more than a quick snap shot at the rim, straining up and down its trails, floating the Colorado River, or flying over the abyss. Experiencing the Canyon requires absorbing the natural details into one's body and soul.

There is no best way to experience the Canyon, but it requires intimacy and time. To know the Canyon, a person must take up its essence through all the senses. It might be reasonable to conclude that seeing the Canyon is the most significant part of experiencing it. For instance, with a 95 percent confidence level, 93.1 to 95.1 percent of visitors reported that natural scenery was a reason that they visited national parks. A somewhat lesser amount of 88.3 to 93.1 percent reported that natural quiet was a reason (NPS 1995).

However, the other senses are important too. The smells of pine trees and wet soil are important. The feel of an uneven rim path or an inner-canyon trail under foot is part of the experience.

The sounds of the Canyon are very important, possibly only secondary to its sight. Every part of the Canyon has its own sounds. At the river, the subtle sound of water passing rock is heard, as is the powerful sound of rapids. Hikers and boaters often hear rapids before they see them. If a visitor steps but a few yards away from the crowds, river rapids can be heard all the way to the rim, even at sites accessible by park busses or car. The sound of a delicate breeze or a powerful wind through the trees, the swish of a hawk gliding through the air, the metallic cr-r-ruck of the raven - all these are important. My favorite sound at the Canyon is silence punctuated with storm thunder, and then the patter of rain.

The sight and sound of the Grand Canyon are the quintessential parts of the place. The sum derived from the sight, sound, and other sensory inputs creates powerful moods and feelings. The totality of these factors creates the power of place. This power affects the mood and soul of people who linger long enough, or comeback from a time apart, to appreciate it.

Natural Quiet

Indigenous sounds are part of what is called natural quiet. The National Park Service simply identified natural quiet as the absence of man-made sounds. Natural quiet is not necessarily the absence of sound, although it is the absence of human generated sound. It is the condition that allows enjoyment of naturally occurring sounds, the sounds native to an area. Natural quiet, sometimes in the form of primeval silence, is fundamental to the undiminished Grand Canyon experience.

As a person lingers and gradually absorbs the full meaning and feeling of the Canyon, natural quiet grows in significance. Indeed, as people come to know and love the Canyon, especially those that spend time away from the crowds, the quiet is generally recognized as an essence of the experience.

Grasser (1992, 24) states "Whether the average visitor consciously dwells on the quietness of the park or just takes it for granted, it is one of the premier resources that draws visitors to our parks." She continues, "We know instinctively that the natural quiet is important and has an intrinsic value as do clean air and water."

Although many come to the Grand Canyon to fulfill their curiosity, to take pictures, or just to see the beauty, many others come for contemplative recreation, to experience the aura and power of place. They come to experience the true power of the Grand Canyon. Compromising the natural quiet of the Canyon is compromising the power of the place.

A diversity of environments is important to the human psyche. Opportunities for contemplative recreation in natural settings are essential to many people, if not to all people. Even knowing that such places exist is valuable. To have diversity, we must save some places for quiet, even while letting noise into the bulk of our surroundings. The national parks and wilderness areas are the only places where we can protect natural quiet.

The Park Service has the responsibility to protect natural quiet. This responsibility derives from the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916. Congress first directly addressed aircraft noise in the park in the Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act of 1975. President Reagan signed the National Parks Overflights Act of 1987 (Public Law 100-91); the act called for "substantial restoration of the natural quiet" at Grand Canyon National Park.

Natural Quiet Being Lost

Although the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service have issued various rules, the number of aircraft tours over the Grand Canyon has continued to grow at a high rate. This has happened even as there have been caps on the number of hotel rooms, backcountry hiking permits, and user days on the river. In 1987, the year Congress called for "substantial restoration," air tour companies conducted approximately 50,000 flights over the canyon. In 1996, the U.S. Air Tour Association, an industry lobbying group, reported that sightseeing companies were responsible for 117,000 flights annually at the park. Thus, in the nine years after the 1987 Congressional action, the annual number of air tours more than doubled. Former park superintendent Rob Arnberger reported that the number of tour flights at the Canyon had increased to 132,000 in 1998. Through the use of flight free zones, and early morning and early evening curfews, the noise has moved around, but it has not diminished.

As the world gets more crowded in general, the skies over the Grand Canyon are getting ever more crowded. Near the air tour routes, the noise is essentially continuous. Even in the most quiet parts of the park, natural quiet has been compromised. If Congress designated "One Square Inch of Silence" for Grand Canyon National Park, as Gordon Hempton suggested (Little 2000), it is doubtful that it could be realized.

The NPS defined "substantial restoration of natural quiet" thusly: "substantial restoration requires that 50% or more of the park achieve 'natural quiet' (i.e., no aircraft audible) for 75 - 100 percent of the day" (parenthetical note by NPS). (The term "day" means 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.)

Under this definition, substantial restoration of natural quiet could exist with half the park lacking natural quiet 25 percent of the day. The other half of the park could be totally without natural quiet and could have any high level of noise 100 percent of the day. This definition would result in a time-area proportion of 37.5 percent natural quiet (1/2 x 75% + 1/2 x 0%).

The FAA admits that even this noise-biased definition of substantial restoration is not being met and they have no plan to meet the requirement in the foreseeable future. Additionally, they are trying to average the non-tour season sound level with the peak season noise. This would allow even more noise in the summer than the current standard.

A Call for Action

The time has come to protect the power of the Grand Canyon. The National Park Service, in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration, should take the following actions:

1. Finite Number of Tour Rides - Put a permanent cap on the number of air tour rides over Grand Canyon National Park. There is currently a temporary cap but it is at a high level and has several loop holes. The number of flights should be at the level it was when Congress first addressed aircraft noise in the Park - 1975. At the very least, the level should be at the level it was when Congress called for "substantial restoration of the natural quiet" - 1987.

2. Curfews - The existing early morning and late evening curfews should continue.

3. Flight Free Zones - The area of flight free zones should be increased until natural quiet is "substantially restored" every day of the year.

4. Quieter Technology - A gradual transition to quieter technology should be part of the solution. Quieter technology aircraft are commonly used in Europe. A primary criterion for tour aircraft should be noise emissions. If certain types of aircraft can not closely match the quieter technology aircraft, they should be phased out.


Some places have special power due to their constructed or natural qualities. This power of place is especially evident at the Grand Canyon. Things that change the natural characteristics of the Canyon impact its power of place. If condominiums were built on the mid-Canyon's Tonto Plateau, that would affect the power of place. If a dam flooded the Canyon, that would affect the power of place. Similarly, assaults on natural quiet rob the power of place from the Canyon.

Often the machines that serve us well have the side effect of obscuring natural quiet. As a power generator in church would steal the spiritual power, aircraft in Grand Canyon National Park steal its power. These intrusions that may be common in the frontcountry tend to be absent in the backcountry.

We have the responsibility to maintain a few places where people can address nature face to face. We should reserve a few places for contemplative recreation. Millions of people turn to the national parks for this type of relaxation. Indeed, this is one of the highest needs that Grand Canyon National Park can provide to the American public. Herman (1992, 36) said it well: "If intrusive, urban-type attractions are allowed to squeeze out more passive, nature-oriented forms of recreation, our parks will become little more than government-subsidized summer resorts in quasi-natural settings."

Aircraft noise in the Grand Canyon destroys its power of place.

If you care about this issue, please contact...

The author: Jim McCarthy, 15040 S. 40th Place, Phoenix, AZ 85044-6747; Telephone (480) 759-8347 (before 9:00 p.m. please)

NPS: Superintendent Joseph Alston, Grand Canyon National Park, PO Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023

FAA: Howard Nesbitt, Special Assistant for National Parks, Flight Standards Service, Federal Aviation Administration, 800 Independence Avenue, SW., Washington, DC 20591; Telephone (202) 493-4981


Flowers, Betty Sue, ed. 1998. The power of myth / Joseph Campbell, with Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday.

Grasser, Mary Ann, and Kerry Moss. 1992. The sounds of silence. Sound and Vibration 26 (Feb.): 24-26.

Herman, Dennis J. 1992. Loving them to death: Legal controls on the type and scale of development in the national parks. Stanford Environmental Law Journal II (3): 3-67.

Little, Jane Braxton. 2000. Desperately seeking silence. Audubon. January-February issue.

NPS (U.S. National Park Service). 1995. Report [to Congress] on effects of aircraft overflights on the national park system. Washington, D.C.

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