The World Is Noisy. These Groups Want to Restore the Quiet

Quiet Parks International (QPI) is a nonprofit working to establish certification for quiet parks to raise awareness of and preserve quiet places. The fledgling organization—whose members include audio engineers, scientists, environmentalists, and musicians—has identified at least 262 sites worldwide, including 30 in the US, that it believes are quiet or could become so with management changes. Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado and Haleakalā Crater in Hawaii are two of them. According to the Great Sand Dunes resource manager, Fred Bunch, the dunes are so quiet that when the Park Service monitored sounds in the area, noise levels often fell below their equipment’s measurement threshold. Other places flagged by Quiet Parks for certification are Doñana National Park in Spain, Ballycroy National Park in Ireland, and the Wadi Rum Protected Area in Jordan.

QPI has no regulatory authority, but like the International Dark Sky Association’s Dark Sky Parks initiative, the nonprofit believes its certification—granted only after a detailed, three-day sound analysis—can encourage public support of preservation efforts and provide guidelines for protection. “The places that are quiet today … are basically leftovers—places that are out of the way,” Quiet Parks cofounder Gordon Hempton says.

The group’s biggest success so far is the April 2019 certification of its first Wilderness Quiet Park, Zabalo River, in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. The designation has helped to boost tourism to the region, bringing travelers who seek the experience of a pristine auditory environment. QPI organizes limited tours to the area, guided and hosted by local Cofán people.

While Quiet Parks is focused on preserving natural quiet in its most pristine form, the National Park Service must balance competing goals of resource protection and public access. “It’s really hard, because in the National Park Service we take public access very seriously,” says Karen Trevino, chief of the agency’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division. Natural Sounds assists the parks in monitoring and modeling noise, developing best practices, and creating mitigation strategies to reduce noise impacts, Trevino says.

In the busy summer months, Zion, Denali, and Rocky Mountain National Parks now run shuttles, which reduce vehicle traffic inside the parks. Other parks, such as Canyonlands in Utah, restrict numbers with permit-only visitation. The Park Service is working with the FAA to reduce airline noise over some areas. Drones are prohibited in all but a few national parks, and there are limits on snowmobile tours in winter, following public outcry in the late 1990s about snowmobile noise pollution in Yellowstone.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area nature preserve in Minnesota is a place of continued conflict between those who prioritize auditory solitude and those who favor motorized recreation. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978 enacted a compromise, restricting snowmobiling and mining, but allowing motorboats on 16 of the refuge’s 1,100 lakes. Today, permits are required, with daily and weekly restrictions, and no more than nine people and four watercraft are allowed together in the wilderness.

In California’s Muir Woods, staff put up signs asking people to be quiet as part of a study by the Park Service. “And people listened!” says Rachel Buxton, a researcher focused on noise pollution at Carleton University who was not involved in the research. “All it took was putting up a couple of signs in the middle of the forest grove, and sound levels dropped.” The findings indicate people are willing to accept trade-offs, like limiting conversations, staying off of certain trails, and having signs and rangers present, to preserve the auditory experience of nature, Barber says.

QPI says the response to its work has been overwhelming. “We’re being flooded by people asking where can they go for quiet,” says Hempton. “And we’re being flooded by management of locations who wish to be recognized for their quiet.”

I think of that spot in the Hoh Rainforest, where I sat aware of the crack of each twig under my feet, and the sound of my own breath. As with the planet’s visual gems, people are now beginning to understand that sounds also matter, that the experience of natural sounds—wolves howling in the distance, the dawn chorus of birds, or steam hissing from the earth—is worth protecting too.

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