How meaningful is it to you to stand before Old Faithful on a mid-winter day and listen to the pure sound of the geyser erupting -- the explosive roar of boiling water being hurled high into the air thanks to the earth's geothermal contortions-- without a whining background noise generated by snowmobiles?
Would it harm your Yellowstone experience if the crashing sound of the Yellowstone River as it plunges over the Upper and Lower Falls were drowned out by a pack of passing snowmobiles?
If you were standing in the Lamar Valley, anxious to hear a howling wolf, and finally picked up the baleful sound, what would you think if you lost it to the drone of passing snowmobiles?
Hopefully Mary Bomar, who last month endorsed snowmobiles in Yellowstone, will mull those questions when she reads the park's final report on how the whining noise from snowmobiles is affecting the park's soundscape.
The report, which carries a September 6, 2006, date but is just now surfacing, states that, time and again -- in fact, more often than not during the daylight hours between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. -- the sound of over-the-snow vehicles not only was present, but was repeatedly exceeding levels established in the current Winter Use Management Plan.
"Oversnow vehicles were audible in the Old Faithful developed area an average of 67% of the day between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.," states the report. "Oversnow vehicles were audible 35% (Old Faithful Upper Basin) and 62% (West Thumb Geyser Basin) of the day within geyser basins adjacent to developed areas. Along travel corridors the percent time audible was 34% (Spring Creek) and 55% (Madison Junction 2.3). The maximum sound levels for oversnow vehicles exceeded 70 dBA at Old Faithful, along the groomed travel corridor between Madison Junction and the West Yellowstone entrance (Madison Junction 2.3) and between West Thumb and Old Faithful (Spring Creek)."
Of course, it must be noted that the above statement concerns "oversnow vehicles," which means both snowmobiles and snowcoaches. But when you realize that the majority of oversnow traffic in the park involves snowmobiles, well, then you have to accept that most of the noise is related to snowmobiles.
And indeed, the report notes that "on average, snowmobiles were audible for more time than snowcoaches..."
Try to keep things in context when you read this chart-heavy, 118-page report. Remember in particular that this data were generated last winter when the average number of snowmobiles entering the park on a daily basis was 267 machines, not the 720 the current management plan allows. Snowcoaches, meanwhile, averaged 30 per day.
Disappointingly, the report recommends not that snowmobiles be banned, but rather that more monitoring be done.
"Collecting audibility data and identifying sources of sounds is important to characterize natural soundscapes and the non-natural acoustical impacts. Evaluating oversnow impacts on the natural soundscape requires sound source identification," the report says. "In addition to information on audibility, the sound level of intruding non-natural sounds is an important aspect of soundscape monitoring."
The report does, however, also recommend that more be done to muffle both snowmobiles and snowcoaches. But it does so not by urging snowmobile manufacturers to focus on better technology, but rather by altering user habits.
"Sound levels and audibility from motorized oversnow vehicles can be reduced immediately by lowering speed limits, especially in popular areas for visitors such as near thermal features and around Old Faithful. Decreasing the speed limit on all roads to 35 mph would reduce oversnow vehicle impacts on the natural soundscape and would have the added benefit of encouraging sightseeing while traveling. Reducing unnecessary idling and rapid acceleration, and other driver behavior modifications would also minimize sound impacts from oversnow vehicles. Reducing the total number and reducing single and small groups of OSVs operating on YNP roads would also minimize their impact to natural soundscapes." (my emphasis)
Take particular note of that last sentence. Any guess on whether the Park Service will move to reduce snowmobile numbers?
Oddly, perhaps only in my mind, the report neglects to mention the harmful health impacts already related to snowmobiling in Yellowstone.
Over at the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, the group is waiting to see how the Bush administration reacts to the report, particularly in light of revisions made to the Park Service's Management Policies earlier this year, revisions that made it clear the agency must protect soundscapes from man-made noise.
"How the administration responds to this conflict between snowmobile noise in Yellowstone and its newly adopted policies will tell Americans a great deal about the administration's commitment to stewardship in the national parks," says Bill Wade, chair of the coalition's executive council.
"The new Management Policies were adopted with strong bipartisan support and the administration was widely and duly praised for its pledge to put conservation first in the national parks," he adds. "But that pledge will be seen as a sham, and should be, if the administration fails to adhere to its policies in our first national park."