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Preserving Natural Soundscapes In The National Parks


"The unimpaired sounds of nature." That's how the National Park Service defines natural soundscapes, and it's what we hope to hear when we reach our favorite national park. Think of serene, trickling creeks, cheeping robins, chirping marmots, and the lullaby of crickets when dusk sweeps over your favorite park. The NPS protects these natural and cultural sounds that affect the emotions, attitudes, and memories of park visitors.

Natural sounds are resources that must be protected as essential to the environment and fundamental for natural ecological processes to continuously occur. There are the natural sounds that species use to communicate, establish territory, for predator evasion, and nurturing and protecting young animals. A natural soundscape is essential for the courtship and mating for all species. Cultural sounds help to reinforce pride in certain places, and connect visitors to their cultural heritage. Various man-made sounds resonate with the American culture and development, like whistling trains, or 1960s ballads that help bring the Vietnam War Memorial to life.

Visitors understand that a certain level of noise is appropriate, yet some forms of exploration are louder than others. Snowmobiles and off-road vehicles, park operations, watercraft, aircraft, airports, and energy development are some of the most common types of noise pollution found in and around national parks. With summer here, and the 74th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally coming to South Dakota early in August, the loud, gutteral roar of cycles likely will be heard cruising through Yellowstone National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, and Jewell Cave National Park.

What do visitors think about some of these man-made types of commotion?

In the winter of 2008, a study was conducted in Yellowstone National Park. It was designed to determine the importance of natural soundscapes for visitors, what visitors' thoughts were toward sounds from motorized vehicles, and if they agreed with management actions taken to protect natural soundscapes. Over 80 percent of the participants agreed that natural sounds play an important role in the overall value of Yellowstone. In contrast, those who rode snowmobiles in the park were more likely to disagree. Snowshoers, snowcoach riders, and cross-country skiers were more likely to agree that Yellowstone should evoke natural quiet, a soundscape free of motorized noise. And they agreed that motorized travel is particularly problematic when it comes to noise levels.

Participants were asked which current policies help maintain the natural sounds. Sixty-eight percent responded that snowmachines should require guides, the number of snow machines in the park should be limited, and that groups should be limited to 11 visitors per guide. When asked if roads should be closed to over-snow vehicles, and whether the roads should be plowed for automobiles, the majority opposed that extreme action.

Motorized noise does vary from season to season; motorcycle and ATV noise in summer months and that from over-snow vehicles in winter. In some parks, aircraft tours are offered year-round, and they bring their own noise to the settings. For those who hope to experience serene seclusion from modern civilization, their natural quiet can be compromised. The best sounds for most park sightseers are the natural sounds, and the soothing sound of silence.

Take Grand Canyon National Park, for instance. Fully experiencing the beauty of the vast, unique canyon takes more than just taking a quick iPhone panoramic photo at the rim overlook. To really understand it, you need to submerge yourself into the panorama. Hiking along its trails, and rafting along rapids of the Colorado River, would not be nearly as meaningful without the background sounds of nature, whether it's the chirping birds, buzzing insects, or rushing waters. While this naturalist utopia of total seclusion sounds like the ideal escape from city clatter, it is only one Google search away from over ten pages of air-tour companies that penetrate the canyon’s natural quiet with the sounds of helicopters and private aircraft tours. Since the first air-tour flight was recorded in 1919, it has increasingly become a common way to see the canyon for people who would rather not spend their days hiking and exploring.

There has to be a common ground for these opposing ideals, and that is what the NPS is working towards. In 1987, the National Parks Overflight Act was passed. It required the analysis of natural sounds, and the scope and effects of those overflights in national parks. It even designated flight-free zones (with the exception of administrative operations and emergency responses). Since then, there have been workshops to balance natural vs. motorized noise, flight curfews, caps on the number of air-tour flights and snowmobile tours in various parks, and even categorizing the noise efficiency of air-tours. In June of 2011, the NPS released a draft environmental impact statement. It received roughly 30,000 comments, most of which were in favor of further protection for park resources and visitor experience.

More recently, National Park Service Director Jonathon Jarvis last month signed a memorandum that directs superintendents nationwide to prohibit launching, landing, or operating unmanned aircraft on lands and waters administered by the NPS.

“We embrace many activities in national parks because they enhance visitor experiences with the iconic natural, historic and cultural landscapes in our care,” Director Jarvis said. “However, we have serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks, so we are prohibiting their use until we can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience.”

Unmanned aircraft, most commonly referred to as drones, are aircraft without a human pilot aboard, flown by a pilot via ground control system or autonomously through the use of an on-board computer. While the memorandum is a temporary measure, Director Jarvis insists the next step will be a service-wide regulation regarding unmanned aircraft. The process will take a considerable amount of time, depending on the complexity of the rule, and will include public notice and opportunity for public comments.

This summer the NPS, in conjunction with the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, is developing and will implement an education and outreach program at a handful of parks. This program will help motorcyclists, and all other park visitors, understand the effects that noise has on national park resources and visitor experience. Personnel at entrance gates and visitor centers will distribute information that describes the importance of natural sounds, the effects of noise on wildlife and visitors, and suggestions for courteous riding and park exploration. If a pamphlet isn’t your style, an electronic roadway sign will show the noise levels of passing vehicles. At the visitor center people are encouraged to compare the different noise levels produced by motorcycles, cars, buses, and other vehicles, and gather information on the effects of noise on wildlife and visitors.

“We tested the program last summer at Rocky Mountain National Park and Crater Lake National Park," said Frank Turina, the Park Service's program manager for policy, planning and compliance. "This year we are planning to implement the program at Glacier National Park, and Devils Tower National Monument during the Sturgis (motorcycle) Rally.”

Thousands of motorcyclists travel through Glacier National Park and Devils Tower National Monument while on their roadtrip to and from the rally held in Sturgis, South Dakota. With the Sturgis event only weeks away, both parks provide a perfect opportunity for the program, and an effective learning tool for visitors. 

Millennials, too enjoy getting away from large weekend crowds, and seeking out the solitude.  Vacationing crowds are fairly easy to elude, but there is no escape from overhead aircraft or the sounds of motorized vehicles. Each park visitor has their own opinion, and that typically coincides with how they experience the parks. Millennials do have opinions about how motorized noise impacts their outings. Three young fishermen were asked informally what they thought. After a three-day jaunt to Yellowstone a few weekends ago, they agreed that motorized noise detracted from their quiet tent view in the morning.

The question was posed on Facebook, but the results were inconclusive.  Some said that there is a time and place for fossil-fueled fun, and that would be a more suitable option outside of the park , while others loved the thrill of an ATV off-roading venture, or the ultimate aerial view of the Grand Canyon, and don't believe it's a problem.

Preferences set aside; there is not one right way to experience each unique park; midair views of the Grand Canyon are surely breathtaking, the open air and excitement of a motorcycle ride in Devils Tower National Monument is exhilarating, and snowmobiles allow many visitors to experience Yellowstone during the cold, winter months.

Whether in the air, on the pavement, or atop snow-packed trails, motorized tours provide access for visitors of all age and ability. For some it might be the only way to see the beauty of national parks. Hopefully visitors and the NPS will continue to work together to protect natural and cultural sounds throughout the park system, and bring awareness to the important roles they play in each unique park environment.

Utah native Carli Jones grew up exploring the outdoors on family outings, weekend camping trips, and hiking in Zion and beyond. An editorial intern for the Traveler, she is a student at the University of Utah studying communication and nutrition. During her spare time she cycles, hikes, rock climbs and snowboards.

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Excellent article, Carli.  Thanks.

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