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National Parks about to Get Noisier?

For the first time in five years, the National Park Service has overhauled its management policy. Passed in committee at the end of August, the policy’s official purpose is to “prevent impairment of park resources and values [and] ensure that conservation will be predominant when there is a conflict between the protection of resources and their use.”

One area getting short shrift, though, is the soundscape of the parks. Although some flights have been banned from the Grand Canyon due to noise pollution, other parks—notably Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii—are besieged by flightseers. Nor is this the only problem.

Senator Diane Feinstein stated that early drafts of the guidelines fall short, noting that “proposed revisions would remove important language about preserving, within the parks, the natural quiet of areas undisturbed by human-caused sound.” Revisions after hers, and more than 45,000 public comments, prompted a joint statement by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Wilderness Society, which applauds the final version of the management plan, stating that it “restores . . . protections for natural quiet in our national parks—a key reason many people visit these places.”

Gordon Hempton, a natural-sounds recording artist who runs the private One Square Inch Project in Olympic National Park, seeking to preserve even the tiniest measure of landscape free of human sound, says the current management guidelines are “inadequate.” A good starting point, he says, would be for a sound survey of the national parks to produce “an inventory of natural sounds and defines the natural soundscape for any given park. This survey is dynamic, changing and expanding with time and the knowledge base.”

With years of budget cuts leading to park infrastructure deteriorating nationwide, such a survey seems doubtful.

In one of the significant changes from the 2001 guidelines, the Park Service says the new version acknowledges “that a natural soundscape is important, but may not be practicable in some parks (or locations).” The Park Service also says that language “has been added to recognize that human-caused sounds are an appropriate part of visitor expectations and experiences in some parks,” in effect giving noise priority over natural quiet.

A recent survey in Yellowstone Park found that in winter, snowmobiles, apparently expected and appropriate by Park Service standards, are audible at Old Faithful 100% of the time, and 98% of the time on the Mystic Falls Trail.

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