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Keeping Things Quiet In The National Parks


It seems inevitable in summer. When we head out to the patio for dinner, to enjoy the evening air and quiet broken by chirping birds at the feeders, a neighbor seemingly sees it as a signal to cut his grass. The gutteral roar of his lawnmower carries well, and proves far more irritating than a mosquito's buzz in the ear.

During the day the mower's noise might have blended in with the rest of the background noise we create -- cars and trucks on the streets, weed-whackers, stereos, vacuum cleaners -- and not seemed obtrusive. But in the evening, a time many of us prize for relaxing and enjoying the day's end, a single mower can sound amplified.

Much the same can be said of noise in national park settings. In places such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, and Canyonlands, just to cite a few examples, we often expect the sounds of silence, or at least those of nature. But as I found out last year during a visit to Congaree National Park in South Carolina, society's background noises can intrude on these natural settings.

Now we're learning that there are at times unintended consequences of good deeds in national parks. For instance, efforts to reduce traffic by using shuttle buses can actually create a noisier environment, according to studies at Rocky Mountain National Park and elsewhere in the park system.

A study recently released by the Acoustical Society of America pointed to the shuttle buses in Rocky Mountain as just one example of noise generators in the park system.

A study in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, for example, revealed the aural consequences of reducing traffic congestion on park roads by adding shuttle buses to carry people to and from trailheads. The new shuttles succeeded in making trails accessible to a greater number of visitors. But each bus was also six times louder than a car; and the sounds of chatting hikers, backpack zippers, and gravel-crunching boots became concentrated at bus arrival times instead of being spread more evenly throughout the day. This good decision therefore had a negative effect on soundscape, shrinking the visitors’ “listening area,” or the distance around their heads at which they can still hear natural sounds.

To mute, so to speak, these sound generators, a Colorado State University researcher, Peter Newman, and colleagues are developing soundscape models that park staff can use to help predict how management actions -- such as bringing in a fleet of shuttle buses to reduce air pollution and traffic -- can affect the soundscape.

Such "soundscape maintenance," notes Professor Peterson (who worked for nearly two years as a ranger at Yosemite National Park), is beneficial not just to human visitors in the parks but to the resident wildlife as well.

“[Animals] want to know, ‘Where’s Bambi?’” Professor Newman explains in a release sent out by the Acoustical Society. “‘How far away do I have to be where [my young] can still hear me … or where I can hear that vole crawling beneath the surface of the leaves?’”

The studies Professor Newman's team conducted included surveys of park visitors to get their thoughts on noise levels in national parks. And they found that something as simple as signs denoting "quiet zones" were effective in getting visitors to keep the noise down.

Professor Newman is presenting the findings of his studies this week in Hong Kong at a joint meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, Acoustical Society of China, Western Pacific Acoustics Conference, and the Hong Kong Institute of Acoustics.

“This paper is about lessons learned,” says the professor. “Not only is noise important to people, but if we ask people to quiet down, they will.”

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I do not appreciate the growing trend amongst hikers to attach their ipod to external speakers and hang them from the pack. If they wish to isolate themselves via an ipod and earbuds, that is their business. If they wish to share their music with everyone else on the trail, it becomes noise pollution.

Likewise, cell phones for emergencies, fine. Yelling at someone about selling a stock whilst on the trail: not so much. I tell these people that talking on a cell phone attracts predators, but I don't think they buy it.

When I pulled into Watchman campground in Zion last fall, I was surprised -- and a bit shocked -- to find electric hookups in all the sites. At first I was a bit miffed, but then realized that having electricity available in summer in a place where temperatures exceed 100 daily would allow people to run air conditioning without requiring a generator.

When I was down there again this spring, I was able to use an electric heater and save my propane. It was much more comfortable than having my trailer's furnace switching on and off with large and uncomfortable temperature swings.

In the past I've always camped in South campground because annoying generator noise made Watchman much less desirable. So even though this certainly had to be an expensive addition when Watchman was renovated, it will probably turn out to be one of the better improvements in the park since the shuttle system started running. I'm not sure, but think camping fees in Watchman were increased -- possibly to pay for the electrical system?

In any case, my hat's off to whoever came up with this win-win.

Lee - An interesting observation. I know that some park traditionalists object to the idea of electric hookups in NPS campgrounds, but you make a good point about how that helps eliminate the noise of generators. (Yes, those a/c units also make noise, but they often seem less obtrusive than many generators.)

During my years working in parks with campgrounds, the issue of generator noise and enforcing "quiet hours" in general was often a challenge. Campers with generators loved them, of course, but those without usually objected. Given the trend toward more and more RVs with a/c units in campgrounds, perhaps electric hookups are a possible solution, if the campground fees can offset the added costs to the park.

It will be interesting to hear what others have to say on this subject.

Lee and Jim, interesting observations—especially about the issues of managing campgrounds and differing sensibilities. I prefer the backcountry so developed car campgrounds are not my usual haunt—but last summer I had an experience that startled me about how much of a purist I must be. I set up Sunday afternoon (on purpose, as everyone was leaving) in what's billed as the tent loop of an NPS campground—perfect location. Then some folks pulled up in an RV and two cars across the road and out piled 12 people. They stated making a big loud dinner and the RVs generator came on. Between the sudden crowd staring at us and the gasoline engine—we packed up our stuff and moved on to a fairly undesireable site—with what was suddenly a very redeeming feature—vegetative screening and silence! As I registered my new site, I asked the ranger why an RV was in the tent loop with a generator running. He said, well, it's not an absolute rule, and besides, they weren't camping—they were picnicking and would be gone in a few hours. One would think that the picnic area would be the place to direct picnickers. In this case, the nearby picnic area had a fatal flaw for our generator users—you can't pull an RV right up to the picnic tables!

NPR's On Being program had a great piece on natural soundscapes yesterday--check it out. I think retaining places without human sounds is critical.

I have also noticed the striking impact of noise pollution on my national park experiences. I try to visit local parks mid-week during off-peak times to avoid crowds and noise, but this isn't always possible. Perhaps the loudest noise "offender" I encounter are groups of motorcyclists traveling the curvy roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I would rather slowly crawl behind a peleton of bicyclists and enjoy the peace than be caught on the Parkway with dozens of motorcycles.

I totally agree with volknitter about motorcycle noise pollution. I've noticed the problem on the Tioga Road in Yosemite, where groups of motorcyclists spoil the peace of the experience of the high country. And while I don't know how the NPS could ban motorcycles on that road since it is a through route across the Sierra, I was shocked that dirt bikes were permitted or even encouraged on the dirt roads of Canyonlands National Park. What otherwise could have been a very blissfully sound free experience looking over the canyons, far from highways, was spoiled by the grinding noise of these loud motors.

I could not agree more with the two comments above. The worst noise pollution I ever experienced in the many NPs I visited so far does not come from ipods, groups of hikers or RVs but from motorcycles. You can still hear them miles and miles away, scaring off any animal life nearby. I do appreciate that motorcycles probably create quite some revenue for NPS, but after all National Parks should be about an undisturbed encounter of nature... Therefore, wherever possible, motorcycles should be banned from the parks!

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