Thanks to a Matador blog post, I found this recent Newsweek article "An Unquiet Nation" about America's vanishing silent spaces. According to audio ecologist Gordon Hempton, there are alarmingly only a dozen truly quiet spaces left in the whole country. As he defines it, that means areas "where natural silence reigns over many square miles." (Hint: One is hidden in the rain forest inside Olympic National Park.)
Hempton's book One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World documents the author's cross-country road trip in a VW bus, during which he took measurements of noisiness in various places, including national parks. He mentions "snowmobiles roaring through Yellowstone, helicopters flying over Hawaii volcanoes, and air tours over the Grand Canyon." I agree that all of those are annoying disruptions to the experience of wilderness. Too many times my serenity while hiking around the summit of Maui's Haleakala or on backcountry trails in the Sierra Nevada was spoiled by noise pollution.
However, one of Hempton's recommendations is "to prohibit all aircraft from flying over our pristine national parks." Yet what national park can claim to be pristine? Recreational tourist development means that all parks by definition already are not pristine, though there are often large swathes of wilderness mandated by law to be protected in near-pristine condition. Plus, prohibiting all aircraft from flying over the parks is not feasible. When I worked as a seasonal ranger in Kings Canyon National Park, I learned military overflights were simply unavoidable in that area of the Sierra Nevada. A bummer, but necessary for now.
Where Hempton and I agree is that tourist overflights and other noise-making leisure pursuits should be severely curtailed in our national parks. In Haleakala National Park, for example, helicopters are allowed too near the summit area. At Grand Canyon National Park, air tours are a nuisance to hikers and anyone else wishing to experience the solitude of the canyon. Air tours also make a sizable carbon footprint on the environment.
Until more national parks start to restrict noise-polluting air and overland tours inside their boundaries, each one of us can help preserve America's last quiet places by voting with our tourist dollars. Skip the noise-making group tours next time you visit a national park, and strike out on foot instead. The wilderness, and your fellow explorers, will thank you.
By the way, who's going to tackle the issue of visual pollution in our parks and the wilderness? I'll start with the Grand Canyon Skywalk. Anybody with me?
Tell me about your pet noise-pollution peeves and most hated eyesores in wilderness areas by leaving a comment below.
Photo: Haleakala National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)