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Shhhhhhh! The Park Service Is Listening


    Throughout a good chunk of 2005 and the first half of this year the National Park Service was embroiled in a tug-of-war over its Management Policies, the well-thumbed handbook park superintendents are supposed to refer to when they are not quite sure off the top of their heads which management shot to call.
    There was the motorized recreation industry on one side lobbying for more access to the park system and less concern over impacts to the system's resources, and on the other was everyone else. OK, not everyone else, but it sure seemed like it. Anyway, one of the nit-picky issues, or so some thought, was protection of natural soundscapes in the parks. You know, the gurgle of streams, the chirping of crickets, the hooting of owls, those kinds of things.
    Heck, U.S. Representative Stevan Pearce, who chairs the House's parks subcommittee, last summer thought the Park Service worried too much about noise pollution. Well, fortunately the good gentleman from New Mexico didn't get his way.
    But here's a bulletin (at least to me): The Park Service is just beginning to study noise in the parks!

    You might have thought that an agency like the Park Service, which for more than a few years has worried about natural soundscapes, would have been studying man-made noise in the park system for quite a while.
    But apparently it hasn't been. A story this week in the Sacramento Bee says "the National Park Service's Natural Sounds Program has begun to document how the intrusion of man-made noise, from planes to Jet Skis to pagers, is affecting life within some of our most treasured landmarks."
    Frank Turina, a natural resources planner for the Park Service, provided this head-turning statement to the Bee's Cynthia Hubert: "Yes, there are still places in the parks that are very quiet. But every day they are fewer and farther between.
    "People want their parks to be places where they can truly get away. They're starting to realize that their parks no longer sound like they should."
    Heck, I could have told Cynthia that. In fact, a survey prepared for the Outdoor Industry Association just about a year ago nailed that one on the head: folks want their parks on the quiet side.
    Anyway, the story is pretty long (you can read the whole thing here after registering for free), and covers much more than the noise in national parks. But there are a couple gems, such as this one from Mia Monroe, who manages Muir Woods National Monument:
     "Most digital cameras are not quiet. Strollers can be quite noisy. Big vehicles have 'backup beepers,' and you hear lots of planes overhead. Back when I started here, cars didn't make those funny little beeps when the doors lock. It all adds up."
     It does indeed. What will be interesting to see is what the Park Service does once it's done documenting all the man-made noise in the parks. Hopefully, it won't ask Rep. Pearce for suggestions.



As someone who frequently records nature sounds and interviews in National Park and National Forest wilderness areas, it's amazing to me how hard it is to get a pristine recording. For example, at Guitar Lake, west of Mount Whitney, inside the eastern edge of Sequoia National Park, I couldn't get more than three minutes without some kind of aircraft in the recording. Between a quarter and a third of those were extremely loud military jets. Hopefully, this program will be run by a scientist who's a nature sounds recording enthusiast, much like the astronomer who rins the Park Service's night sky research program. Something else interesting about noise in wilderness areas: I've discovered that areas that are up-valley or up-canyon from major electrical transmission lines have a hum that permeates the valley. It's amazing how far away from those transmission lines you can be and still hear a distinct AC-power (60 Hz) hum resonating softly between the walls of the valley or canyon.

My family and I like canoeing on the Current River in Missouri. It's part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. You have to get started very early in the morning to be able to paddle in peace. By mid-morning, groups of canoeists fueled by beer are blasting their boomboxes. Those boomboxes compete with the boomboxes of the campers on the sandbars and picnic spots along the way. So much for seeing the herons or deer.

Interesting. I just came from a Wisconsin State Park over the weekend. We left on Thursday and the kids missed school on Friday. It was the first time ever that I went camping in a state park with the kids during off-peak times. And the noise is exactly what I noticed, or the lack there of. I was truely amazed on how pieceful and quiete it was that Friday, before most of the other campers showed up. It is a double edged sword, we want good visitor numbers in our parks at the same time keeping it as natural as can be. Wow what a balancing act our parks must do.

I recently retired from the NPS Natural Sounds Program. Although the program is relatively new, sound has been an issue for quite some time ... witness the length of time FAA and NPS have been struggling over the noise of flightseeing at Grand Canyon. The NPS has been studying sound and trying to build a program at the same time over the past five years, with limited funds. I liken the situation to trying to build a boat and sail it at the same time. It has taken the park service many years to develop methods and data bases to provide legally sufficient information to managers in the data-intensive areas of air and water quality. Sound is no different. In an era in which any environmental analysis is so totally dissected by people and organizations who disapprove of conservative management, data collection and analysis must be painstakingly careful. The point: NPS has been engaged in this effort for some years, and has been pushing the frontiers of the science. The impression should not persist that the park service has just now started on this vital measure of environmental and experiential quality. It is certainly not true that the NPS has only recently become concerned about the natural soundscape.

Good luck with the noise abatement in the National Parks. I thought we taught are kids that "silence is golden" when we visit the Parks. Now, it's who can be the biggest noise spectacle in the park.It's the loudest, meanest and most obnoxious noise maker in the Park that usually wins. As long as people continue bring every horn maker to the Parks, we won't be able to discover (or re-discover) how beautiful and golden silence really is. Whisper in my ear dear wind!

All national park campgrounds have 'quiet hours' usually from 10pm. to 6am. or thereabouts. They didn't need to do any sound studies before making that rule. They just made a rule to keep things quiet at night. Why do you need a sound study to prohibit the playing of loud music in the parks? Why do you need a sound study to ticket motorcycles or cars with bad or no mufflers? Or to ticket dog owners in the parks, whose dogs bark continuously? Can't common sense sound rules be made without waiting for studies? Just make the rule, post it prominently and enforce it.

Get real Kath, this 2006 not the 1950's! Abnoxious drunken souls at the Parks, have no qualms in how loud they are after 10:00PM, it's the same situation with the Hell's Angel type that come roaring into the Park with looks to kill...if not to intimidate. Why can't we utilize are park rangers as naturalist (as most were trained as professionals) instead of crowd control cops with a hand gun. Most professional rangers, I'm sure would prefer teaching conservation and wilderness ethics to the public as opposed to controlling unruly campers who don't give a damn about one's quiet private space.

As I understand it, park rangers now have to be trained as law enforcement officers. It's a sad situation but necessary. A ticket or putting the boot on their cars or RVs might make the noisemakers go elsewhere to camp out. As for the motorcycles, they should be turned away at the entrance stations. My point was that in my experience, most of the noise pollution in the national parks is coming from obnoxious, inconsiderate people rather than airplanes or electrical lines. That's where enforcement efforts should be directed. It's simpler than getting new regulations on air traffic or electrical right of wayss. And it doesn't seem to me to need lenghthy sound studies to begin doing it.

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