Activists have spent years fighting to protect Nevada’s natural areas. But what about preserving assets you can’t see — like silence?
Last fall, Randy Marsh was outside his Calico Basin home doing yardwork when he heard a familiar sound: the rhythmic chorp-chorp-chorp of a helicopter overhead. Birds scattered from the trees as Marsh looked up. A 25-year veteran of Las Vegas Fire and Rescue, he has buddies in search and rescue, and takes notice whenever a team arrives at Red Rock National Conservation Area — whether for training or an actual operation.
But this wasn’t one of those teams. Instead, Marsh was surprised to see a civilian pilot flanked by two beaming tourists looking out the windows, snapping pictures of the colorful sandstone cliffs around his house.
“I’m not the quietest person in the world,” confesses Marsh, an amateur carpenter, who also produces music in a specially built studio in his basement. “But one reason we live here is the two-acre requirement. You have a distance barrier between you and your neighbors. I make noise sometimes, but I don’t want to disturb anyone. I can run a table saw in my garage, and if the door is closed, my neighbor doesn’t know it.”
Within a matter of weeks, Marsh estimates, the small commercial helicopter was buzzing his property and the surrounding hills three or four times a day. He and the neighbors started to talk. Some had seen the chopper flying low over Red Rock’s trails. It was time to do something.
“We’re all here for a certain type of experience,” he says. “It’s the same with light. If someone moves out here and puts a bunch of floodlights up, we do something about it. We have preserved the night skies.”
Now, it’s time to preserve the silence. But Calico Basin residents have discovered that preserving this invisible natural resource is difficult. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees national conservation areas, doesn’t have jurisdiction over the skies. The FAA does, but it says the private company isn’t violating any laws. And that company, Skyline Helicopter Tours, isn’t returning phone calls (including Desert Companion’s).
“When people banded together to fight (Jim) Rhodes’ planned Red Rock community, they were worried that it would intrude on nature,” Marsh says. “But if nothing is done about these helicopters, trust me, it’s going to be 100 times more intrusive than any housing development. It’ll be constant traffic all day long.”
Over our heads
Skyline Helicopter Tours has existed since at least June 2013, when owner Dean Miarecki filed the LLC with the Nevada Secretary of State. With the purchase of his first helicopter, “he realized he wanted to share the beauty of Las Vegas with locals and tourists alike,” according to the company website. The company offers tours over the Strip and Red Rock Canyon — with a variety of available perks, such as show tickets and the “doors off” option — ranging from $139 per person to $569 for groups of three. The Red Rock-only tour is described as a 15-mile, 30-minute excursion, during which customers can “experience the desert thermal effect lifting the helicopter above the incredible colors of the desert floor.” Flights go in and out of North Las Vegas Airport.
Nothing about this is illegal, says FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. “The general rule is that helicopters have to be operated so they don’t pose a hazard to people or property on the ground,” Gregor writes in an email. “This generally means that the helicopter has to be operated so the pilot can set it down, without endangering people or property on the ground, in the event of a loss of engine power.”
[Hear more: Learn about a unique Red Rock visitor's guide on “KNPR's State of Nevada.]
There are no further restrictions pertaining to Red Rock specifically or conservation areas in general, Gregor says. However, the FAA in 2004 issued voluntary guidelines for flights in noise-sensitive areas ranging from residential areas to wildlife refuges. Pilots are asked to avoid such places, if practical, and, if not, to “make every effort to fly not less than 2,000 feet above ground level.”
Calico resident Dwight Hempel, an Air Force veteran and retired Bureau of Land Management employee who was liaison to the FAA, says one reason the flights may feel especially intrusive has to do with acoustics.
“Here, you have a unique situation in that, when a helicopter flies through the basin or up the west side of Calico Hills, the sound ricochets off the ridgeline,” Hempel says. “And the background is much quieter (than cityscapes) to begin with. So, you can imagine what a helicopter sounds like in that setting.”
The BLM says it’s received complaints about the noise, but doesn’t have any regulatory authority, so it’s referred callers to the FAA.
Up in the air
This is not a novel conflict. Those who consider silence an essential part of outdoor recreation have long battled flyovers of all kinds. Grand Canyon National Park had the most notable success in 1987, when it won restrictions in flights below the rim and above four flight-free zones through the National Parks Overflight Act. Since then, the park service has been more active in this regard than
“Congress passed air tour legislation pertaining to national parks, but not conservation areas,” Gregor writes.
It raises the question: What does a national conservation area conserve? The BLM’s web page on the topic says Congress designates the areas to “conserve, protect, enhance and manage public lands for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
A large body of research details the effects of over-flights on natural quiet, cultural and historical resources, sacred sites and ceremonies, wildlife, visitors and safety. A 1997 bill introduced by Arizona Senator John McCain states that noise associated with aircraft can disturb the natural quiet and experience of nature. Although he’s arguing for flight restrictions at a national park in his district, the point could extend to conservation areas.
At the same time, these areas are explicitly set aside for the public’s “benefit and enjoyment.” The customers taking Skyline’s Red Rock tour are undoubtedly enjoying themselves, or rising numbers of them wouldn’t be shelling out $139 apiece. The question Marsh and others advocating for restrictions will undoubtedly ask is whether those tourists’ enjoyment interferes with the government’s mandate to protect and enhance the land — whether that’s Red Rock’s beautiful sandstone cliffs or the peace and quiet that emanate from them.